It begins with a melancholy solo violin, perfectly setting the tone for the heart-breaking life of Lena Zavaroni.
Just nine years old in 1974 when she catapulted to superstardom, winning the hit TV talent show Opportunity Knocks a record-breaking five times, Lena Zavaroni was a prodigious talent. A tiny child, the juxtaposition of a baby-doll dress and ribbons in her hair with the voice of a red-hot jazz mama. The world fell in love with the kid from a small island in Scotland, whose family ran a chip shop and who had never seen a traffic light in her life.
She sang at The White House, shared a stage with Cher, Lucille Ball, Liza Minnelli and Frank Sinatra, she was the youngest person to achieve a top 10 album. Fame and fortune came as she reached double digits.
We are harshly reminded in Tim Whitnall’s moving work that we are smack-dab in the 1970s, with all the horrors that entails. The newspapers, TV producers and her management relentlessly making comments about her appearance especially her weight. In hindsight her treatment at their hands is nothing short of monstrous. This was a nine year old, pre-pubescent child, it sends shivers of horror up and down your spine. They remind her she could be the next Karen Carpenter, Judy Garland or Janis Joplin – the irony is not lost on the audience.
Lena charts her removal from her close-knit family into the arms of her manager at just nine. The bond with her beloved father torn. Her mother, a very different kettle of fish, a woman with a misguided confidence in her minimal abilities as a singer, sees her chance to live a life of stardom vicariously through her tiny, phenomenally gifted daughter. Mum Hilda is largely unsympathetic, diminishing her daughter’s illnesses, marking her as ungrateful, asking how she could throw her chances away.
Lena, takes us beyond and behind the fame, to 1999 and a last ditch attempt to relieve herself of her mental health issues, especially the anorexia nervosa. She is a wisp, a shadow of her former self, the glory days are a dim and distant memory. Her entire life was dictated to her by others, they controlled her hair, her clothes, her choice of song, the only thing she had control over was her diet. She has exhausted the million of pounds she made, she is desperately trying to raise the money for a dangerous experimental treatment. It is heart-breaking to watch.
This is a work of infinite quality. There’s a sensitivity in the writing and thoughtfulness to how Zavaroni’s life is portrayed. The cast are universally excellent. Erin Armstrong’s Zavaroni is nothing short of perfect, she is incandescent, portraying her from wide-eyed child to adulthood seamlessly. She has an impressive singing voice too, one that captures the strength and essence of Zavaroni to a tee.
Dead Ringers star Jon Culshaw is central to the action as star maker Hughie Green, and while he doesn’t quite pull off Green’s distinctive voice, he skilfully avoids making a caricature of a man who was a living caricature. Alan McHugh sensitively plays dad Victor and Julie Coombe plays mum Hilda with the requisite brashness. Helen Coombe is suitably unlikeable as manager Dorothy Solomon.
Utterly engrossing, thoroughly moving, Lena is absolutely one to watch.
Runs until 28 August 2023 | Image: Ian Watson