This new musical about the life of Scottish child star, Lena Zavaroni, paints a stark picture of the dark side of living in the bright lights.
While many will remember the diminutive singing sensation, who won Opportunity Knocks a record-breaking five times in a row at the age of ten, far fewer will be aware of the challenges that she faced as she got older, and her tragic death at only thirty-five.
Zavaroni, who grew up in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, was the daughter of chip shop owner and guitarist, Victor, and club singer Hilda. When record producer, Tommy Scott, heard her sing while on holiday on the island, the wheels began to turn, and this joyful young girl was catapulted into international stardom without a safety net. At thirteen, she was reported to be suffering from anorexia nervosa, an illness that she battled until her untimely end. Utterly desperate, Zavaroni signed up for experimental neurosurgery to cure the condition, threatening to end her life if the operation did not go ahead. Three weeks later, in October 1999, she died from pneumonia.
Written by Tim Whitnall and directed by Paul Hendy, Lena is primarily seen through Victor’s eyes, with a split stage design by Becky Minto that represents both the Zavaroni’s modest home and the sparkly studio stage. The impressive live band, under the musical direction of Matthew Brown, underscores the piece beautifully, while Jon Culshaw’s Hughie Green expertly performs the role of narrator in addition to that of the memorable TV host.
Erin Armstong gives an outstanding debut as Lena, with superb vocal and acting performances that keep the story engaging and compelling throughout. Helen Logan is exceptional as her agent, Dorothy Solomon, an arch woman who is supposed to be looking out for her young charge, but lacks a parental instinct.
Despite the sombre subject matter, Lena manages to balance the important key message with moments of humour and numerous toe-tapping songs. Some of the dialogue feels a little stilted, particularly between Lena’s parents, and there are some clunky transitions, but there are equally touches of brilliance – particularly some of the staging, with Lena’s top six treatment options presented like an Opportunity Knocks scoreboard.
The real tragedy of Lena, and the reason her story still has so much relevance, is the lack of understanding that the pressures of fame were having on such a vulnerable youngster. The easily available recordings of talk show host Terry Wogan telling Zavaroni to eat so that she can get back to her “chunky self”, amongst other tone deaf examples, have an uncomfortable reasonance for programmes like The X Factor, and the impact of instant stardom can still be seen in catastophic outcomes for more recent child stars and others in the public eye. It can only be hoped that this heartfelt tribute to her life can raise awareness, and help prevent future calamity.
By Deborah Klayman
Lena plays at Assembly George Square, Edinburgh until August 28th 2023.