REVIEW - Lena (Theatre, Music) [Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2023]
Updated: Aug 18
In 1974, 10-year-old singing sensation Lena Zavaroni simultaneously won the nations hearts and 5 episodes of top TV Talent Show, Opportunity Knocks. Becoming a star and a household name so young certainly took its toll. When we meet Lena in this new play by BAFTA and Olivier Award Winning writer, Tim Whitnall, it's 25 years later, 1999, and we discover a very different Lena, one for whom the glory days are long gone.
Lena is a compelling play with music which explores what happened to Lena in the intervening years. It features a live band and a five-strong cast including Erin Armstrong as Lena, and Jon Culshaw as the '1970's Simon Cowell', Hughie Green.
I instantly connected with the story: Being from the west coast of Scotland myself, the names, places and accents were all familiar to me and invoked a strong sense of nostalgia. I'm not so acquainted with the reasons why it all went wrong for Lena.... And I found this 90 minute play both fascinating and devastating.
Victor Zavaroni (Alan McHugh) seemed to be the only adult with any misgivings about sending such a young child alone, to London, to be at the mercy of the cruel entertainment industry and its puppet masters. We are, thankfully, a lot less trusting of 'powerful' strangers nowadays. Alan McHugh gives such a brilliant performance as the likeable, hesitant cheerleader in Lena's life; I was straight on the internet when I got home to check if her father is still alive.
Jon Culshaw is excellent as Hughie Green. A sort of sinister, Jekyll and Hyde character - sweet and warm in front of the cameras, he is portrayed as cold and calculating off screen. Did he ever realise what damage his throwaway comments had on Lena and possibly others just as vulnerable as her?
But it is Erin Armstrong as Lena who quite rightly steals this show. From bubbly, eager child star, to frail, desperate adult, Erin is exceptional from beginning to end. Her voice, her poise, her stage presence are all remarkable. I can scarcely believe that this is Erin's theatrical debut. Three times I have double checked that! But it's true. She is a superstar, and this production soars because she is the focal point.
The staging is clever, with half of the stage doubling for the Zavaroni's modest home on Rothesay where they watch their daughter perform on a tiny TV screen; the rest hosts the stage and live band. It works well. The music throughout this show is great, with many more recognisable classic tunes than I was expecting. There is plenty of joy and toe-tapping to be had along with the more sombre moments.
Learning about the details of Lena's illness, and the multitude of treatments and medications she took in an attempt to save her life and reignite her career, only serves to reinforce what an exceptional and strong young lady she was. Although set in the past, the themes of this play are absolutely still relevant today. Society remains obsessed with celebrity culture, and many people still seek fame at any cost.
The standing ovation at the end of this play was enthusiastic and well deserved. I couldn't actually see the bows through my tears.
Lena is a beautiful show with an exceptional performance at its heart. I do hope this production lives on beyond the Fringe so that many more people have the chance to learn about Lena and her story.
When and Where?
Dates: 3 – 28 August (not 15th)
Venue: Assembly George Square: Gordon Aikman Theatre
Address: 32 George Square, Edinburgh EH8 9LH
Price: £14.00 - £19.00
Box Office: www.edfringe.com / https://assemblyfestival.com
📸 Photo credit: Feather Productions
Paul Hendy is a scriptwriter, director, and producer.
In a previous life, Paul was a TV presenter and hosted shows such as The Disney Club, Don’t Try This At Home with Davina McCall and Wheel of Fortune (which had been running for twenty-three years until Paul hosted one series and they cancelled it!) He also hosted the BAFTA nominated Dear Mr Barker and the cult classic Stash the Cash (‘cult’ meaning it was rubbish but students liked it!).
Paul wrote, directed and produced the short film, The Last Laugh. The film was a huge success at major film festivals around the world winning several awards including ‘Best Comedy Drama’ at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, ‘Award of Excellence’ at the Global Film Festival (San Diego) and ‘Best Film’ at the Manchester Film Festival. On screen, Paul has also directed The Terrorist Princess, Mister Sunshine and several TV ads. His novels Diary Of A C-List Celeb (in no way autobiographical… honest!) and Who Killed Simon Peters? were published by Transworld in 2004 and 2009. They received great critical acclaim and were subsequently translated into Russian and Greek (true!). The novels can currently be found in the bargain bins of most reputable bookshops.
Paul directed and produced a UK Tour of Morecambe. He has optioned the film rights for Morecambe and is currently developing a screenplay called Bring Me Sunshine with Tim Whitnall about the life story of his comedy heroes, Morecambe and Wise… Paul is also one of the leading pantomime producers in the country and has written, directed and produced over 100 pantomimes in some of the best theatres in the country.
ERIN ARMSTRONG - LENA ZAVARONI Erin plays series regular Cassie Perez in BBC’s Shetland and has also featured in Rillington Place, Millie Inbetween, Emmerdale and River City. Erin has worked with Theatre School Scotland, running film and TV workshops and started her acting career as part of Theatre in Education. Lena marks Erin’s first major starring role in theatre.
JON CULSHAW - HUGHIE GREEN Widely regarded as Britain’s best impressionist, Jon Culshaw is also an accomplished actor and presenter. Notable credits include Dead Ringers, Spitting Image, The Impressions Show and The Secret World. As an actor, Jon has played a wide variety of roles and delivered performances to much critical acclaim, including The Final Take: Bowie in the Studio for the BBC, Unseen Academicals a Terry Pratchett audio drama for Audible, a portrayal of the great Alan Whicker for The Other Side of the World and Billy and Me, part of the ‘Barnes' People’ series for The Original Theatre Company and Perfectly Normal Productions. Last year, Jon received widespread critical acclaim for his solo performance in Les Dawson: Flying High, taking the show from a successful run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to a sell-out national tour at the end of 2022.
ALAN McHUGH - VICTOR ZAVARONI Alan trained at RSAMD and has since worked with the country’s leading theatre companies, including the Citizens, National Theatre of Scotland, Traverse, Royal Lyceum, Tron, Wildcat, Borderline, Perth Rep, Dundee Rep and many more. In addition to many radio and feature/ short film credits, he has worked extensively in television. Credits include Outlander, the double BAFTA Award-winning Limmy’s Show, Taggart, High Road, River City, Scot Squad, Rab C. Nesbitt and Still Game. As a writer, Alan has written the annual Beacon pantomime since 2016, and has penned 2021’s Cinderella.
JULIE COOMBE - HILDA ZAVARONI After training in acting at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Julie has enjoyed an incredibly varied career for nearly three decades. Theatre includes Scottish classics such as, The Slab Boys Trilogy and The Steamie. She starred in the first Scottish tour of The Vagina Monologues where her flair for comedy led to the creation of her hit show, Hormonal Housewives, which has seen six UK tours. On radio Julie is a well-known voice from countless comedy shows including the long-running sketch show The WhyFront and the sitcom No Hard Feelings. On TV Julie has ticked off two Scottish soaps starting with STV’s Take the High Road, but is perhaps best known from BBC’s River City as Terri, ‘the tart with no heart’. She was the alien mum Mrs Krspltyx in CBBC’s Intergalactic Kitchen. Her comedy credits for the BBC include Revolver, the sitcom Millport and three seasons of Live Floor Show.
HELEN LOGAN - DOROTHY SOLOMON Helen has worked widely in theatre with roles in: Local Hero (Royal Lyceum); Hamlet (Bard in the Botanics); Bill McLaren: The Voice of Rugby (Firebrand TC); The Sunshine Ghost (Scottish Theatre Producers); Blithe Spirit; Death of a Salesman; Moonlight and Magnolias; Proof; A Streetcar Named Desire; Tales from Hollywood, (all Perth Theatre); The Angel and The Manse (Glasgow Oran Mor); The Cone Gatherers (APA Tour); Life, Love and Liberty (Dumfries and Galloway Arts); Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (Prime Productions); Mill on the Floss (Nottingham Playhouse/ Northcott Exeter) and Hard Times (Northcott Exeter). Helen has also performed in several seasons at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. Her film & TV work includes River City (BBC); The Descent (Celador Films/Pathé); We've Gotta Get Out of This Place (BBC); A Mug's Game (BBC); and Dr Finlay (STV).
ANNA MURPHY FOR FEATHER PRODUTCIONS
JULIE COOMBE & JOHN MacNEILL FOR GLASS HANDBAG PRODUCTIONS
MICHAEL EDWARDS FOR MJE PRODUCTIONS
BECKY MINTO – DESIGNER
LAURA HAWKINS – LIGHTING DESIGNER
PAUL SMITH – SOUND DESIGNER
MATTHEW BROWN – MUSICAL DIRECTOR & ARRANGER
ALISON McNEIL - VIOLINIST
🌟REVIEW - Lena (Theatre, Music) [Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2023]🌟
🎟️ Disclosure: I am an Edinburgh Festival Fringe accredited media reviewer and as such I receive complimentary press tickets in exchange for my honest reviews. My reviews and star ratings are always my honest opinions.
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