Had she lived, Lena Zavaroni would have been sixty this year. It seems timely that Lena, a play with music, should serve as a reminder of the singer’s phenomenal talent as well as charting her roller-coaster journey through the unforgiving world of show business.
For those old enough, they’ll remember “the little lassie with the pipes of Shirley Bassey” who shot to overnight fame on the ITV talent show juggernaut, Opportunity Knocks. The incongruity that a girl so young and had such a powerful and mature voice, she was an immediate sensation with the millions of viewers at home. She was so successful winning week after week, the show had to retire her to give someone else a chance. Fast forward a few years and Lena was hitting the headlines for a different reason. Suffering from anorexia nervosa, the media had a field day splashing “tragic Lena” across their front pages.
Tim Whitnall‘s conscientiously-considered script boasts an approach that is both entertaining and compassionate. Too often films and plays about “tragic stars” grub around for the most harrowing details of the story, neglecting that the person concerned was a human being too. Whinall deftly treads that tricky line of never shying away or sugar-coating the uncomfortable aspects of the story, but neither does Lena exploit her story for sensation. Careful consideration is giving to remember the real person in the round. Her absolute joy of singing, her preternatural talent of interpreting a song, her love of her family render the show’s title character so much more than just a “victim”.
Beginning at 1999 when Lena has chosen to undergo what she believed was pioneering surgery, her leucotomy (in effect a lobotomy) was intended to resolve her depression and anxiety stemming from her eating disorder. Her father Victor (a lovely believable performance from Alan McHugh) sits in the waiting room brimming with regrets and recriminations, trying to make sense of how Lena’s life was not the Roses and Rainbows they had hoped for.
As we delve back to how it all began back in Rothesay on the isle of Bute, the host of Opportunity Knocks Hughie Green becomes our host-with-the-most narrator and guide. Played with forensic precision by the wonderful Jon Culshaw, a piece of inspired casting, the impressionist lends Greene a hint of that snake-oil salesman insincerity that foreshadows that not everything in showbiz is quite what it seems.
Craving her own place in that world is Hilda Zavaroni, Lena’s mother. Introduced by Hughie, as a “spirited club singer”, she’s two parts sass and two parts on the sauce. Tormented by the thoughts of what could have been, when a record producer talent spots the 9-year old Lena singing in her father’s chip shop, Hilda decides if she can’t have fame, she’ll make sure her daughter takes her place. In the wrong hands, the part could be a pushy showbiz mother or a woman who cared more of her own dreams than her daughter’s well-being. Thankfully, Julie Coombe‘s beautifully layered performance manages to mix naivety and relatable human foibles along with the bravado and selfishness. Later in the play when she protests “I love my daughter”, against all the valid reasons you might doubt this, Coombe makes this line true, not just in the moment, but always within her character.
When mother, father and daughter perform Speedy Gonzales together, it suggests the carefree fun in Lena’s childhood. Watching her youthful enthusiasm dancing around with her parents, Hilda shaking sauce bottles as maracas, it’s so giddy, it leaves you grinning from ear to ear and clapping along. The use of songs in Lena is so much more than just a tension reliever. It never becomes a jukebox musical of Lena’s hits. The songs are placed to interact with the narrative. The lyrics of this song “Speedy Gonzales / Why don’t cha come home? / Speedy Gonzales / How come ya leave me all alone?“, amidst the fun, give a prophetic warning as Lena is taken from her home and both parent and child will be left all alone.
There’s a saying: it takes a star to play a star. In Erin Armstrong, they’ve found a superstar! Her portrayal of Lena will take your breathe away. The subtlety she invests into the transformation of Lena’s physicality from young and healthy to older and very unwell is extraordinary. As if the role wasn’t enough of a challenge, the part needs to evoke the singing talent of Zavaroni. Armstrong doesn’t simply mimic the trademark growl and the belt, she finds a way to get under the skin of the lyrics and convey a unique emotional reading of the song. While Where Do I Begin is all nuance and warmth, If My Friends Could See Me Now is tinged with sadness and loneliness. The line “Traipsing around this Million-dollar chicken coop” feels particularly bittersweet.
It’s hard to convey how Armstrong nails the show’s final song – Neil Sedaka’s Going Nowhere. From bell-like clarity to impassioned belt, this is not merely an emotional showstopper but suggests a defiant reminder of Lena the singer, and not “tragic Lena”.
The show wisely avoids appointing blame in any one direction. Certainly her manager and agent Dorothy Solomon (played with icy calculation by Helen Logan) who took young Lena to London to make her a star is in the frame. Incapable of understanding parental responsibilities or duty of care, she sees Lena only in terms of career goals and not the needs of a child. The intention behind Solomon’s many pernicious comments about Lena’s weight is to keep her client at the top. It isn’t even a consideration what effect this might have on an impressionable young woman.
There is something of a twisted fairy tale about Lena but the poignancy in the script comes from the moments of optimism and happiness. There are so many sliding door moments where if just one of many choice had been made differently, things might have turned out differently. There’s a line in the play that sends a chill through the audience. When it is suggested that Lena “could be the next Karen Carpenter”, there’s an audible shudder, in recognition how this has happened to performers before and after Lena.
Lena is evocative, emotional, brutal and joyous all at the same time. With a level of staging that you’ll struggle to find elsewhere at the Fringe, a versatile live band and a set of powerhouse performances from the entire cast, we have a recommendation for you: if you go to see one show this Edinburgh Fringe, make it Lena!
The Recs’ Clapometer reads ★★★★★ 5-stars