Feather Productions in association with the Beacon Arts Centre presents the world premier of ‘Lena’
written by BAFTA and Olivier award-winner Tim Whitnall. This original play tells the story of child star
Lena Zavaroni who shot into stardom after appearing on the hit talent show ‘Opportunity Knocks” in
1973 at only ten years of age. My knowledge of Lena prior to the show only sat at the very tip of the
iceberg, this allowed me to be taken through the journey of her life story with fresh eyes. This play is
a beautiful, heartwarming celebration of Lena Zavaroni’s life and is eerily relevant in today’s society.
Lena is currently premiering at The Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock until Saturday 19th of March
Erin Armstrong’s portrayal of Lena was phenomenal. Erin was able to show her brilliant range
throughout this play with the character journey of Lena. Her facial expressions and exaggerated
physicality portrayed a wonderful youthfulness and curiosity in her depiction of Lena’s younger
years. This was a massive contrast to her believable portrayal of Lena’s struggles with anorexia, her
physicality became closed and felt heavier on stage as she battled through her illness. Erin had a
wonderful tone to her voice, her emphasis during ‘Mama’ was spot on to the original recording and
she portrayed the charisma of Lena excellently. Erin really captured the natural emotional maturity
that allowed Lena to convincingly storytell through song, emulating that gripping performance Lena
was known for.
Julie Coombe’s portrayal of Hilda was fantastic, Julie brought a familiarity to the stage of a loveable
typical Scottish mum. Her delivery of her comedic lines, in my opinion, was Julie’s biggest strength
making her obviously flawed character loveable. I think Julie brought a wonderful tension to the
stage, an unpredictability at times leaving the audience wondering if she would ever over step her
mark as she vicariously lived through her daughter. She played the vulnerability of this character
well. At times I felt Hilda came across slightly too vicious, this may be intentional due to the play
being from Lena and her fathers perspective. However, I do find this choice interesting as Hilda was
struggling from a terrible illness of her own.
Alan McHugh as Victor Zavaroni was simply brilliant. He portrayed such a heartwarming father
figure. He delivered his memory of his version of events beautifully using hindsight to criticise his
own wrongdoing. Alan is a wonderful storyteller, the tone of his voice and his intentional inflictions
drive his emotions throughout the play. Alan had a wonderful connection on stage with Erin which
allowed them to tell the beautiful story of this father and daughter relationship. His naturalism
lended to this intimate performance and made the audience feel like you were listening to him
reminisce over a cup of tea.
Helen Logan as Dorothy Solomon brought a fun lease of life into the show. Helen brought real class
and elegance to Dorothy. She was able to command the stage with her authoritative dominance and
the audience respected her position which could have somewhat vilanised Dorothy without Helen’s
striking balance. Helens vocal inflections and range in her delivery of her lines softened Dorothy and
humanised what otherwise could have been quite a one note character. The writing also allows
Dorothy a redeeming moment which allowed Helen to portray a very human, vulnerable side to
Jon Culshaw as Hughie Green was fabulous, he had a real understanding of how to grasp the
audience as a presenter. His energy was sustained throughout the show. Jon has a very charismatic
stage presence and he managed to subtly and effectively switch between the energy of the narrator
of ‘Lena’ in real time and presenter Hughy Green of “Opportunity Knocks”. He had the accent and
cadence of Hughie Green down to a tee. At times the end of his sentences got lost due to the last
word being drawn out.
James Dawoud played various roles within the play as well as being one of the musicians, he had
well thought out characters for each of the various roles, good articulation and did a brilliant job of
slicky transition between his various roles in this production.
Tim Whitnall has done Lena Zavaroni justice in his writing, it is a celebration of her life while also
mapping out the injustices that she and many others faced as child stars. The media pressure is a
huge influence on Lena and it is very well portrayed how microscopic that stardom was at that time.
We live in a new society where fame is less focused on a select few but opinions are more readily
available and it’s interesting to see this show at this time in society. What stands out in this story is
how prevalent the themes still are of women’s beauty standards in society and mental health and
the stigma that still surrounds it. However, what stands out the most is Lena’s remarkable natural
talent and her amazing impact on the world.
The directing by Leslie Finlay was wonderful. Her experience in both theatre and film suited this
production as it would have been a difficult task to balance creating an environment of a studio live
audience while allowing the intimate moments to remain intimate. I think the simplicity of the set
allowed the actors to capture and engage the audience within some of their more vulnerable
moments. I do think there’s room for improvement on the movement of the set as sometimes the
actors taking away the set caused disruption to important dialogue which could have been missed
due to the distraction, however, this is a simple fix. Another thing I think would benefit this
production would be allowing the audience to have the knowledge of when they have to join in as
the “studio audience” as I feel there were moments the audience were not sure if they were to
participate or not. Especially as in theatre today audience etiquette is under a lot of scrutiny due to
poor behaviour. I think regular theatre goers are almost shy in this climate to join in.
I think the lighting was used well as the dim warmer tones also created that intimacy. The costumes
were relatively simple and effective for all characters except Lena. Lena’s costumes were almost
exact replicas which alongside the choreography and Erin’s portrayal made you feel like you were
witnessing Lena perform in the late 60’s and 70’s like a time capsule had opened. Unfortunately
there were some technical issues with the microphones, the actors did well to stay focused and
project at these times.
In conclusion Lena is a must see new hit, a beautifully crafted tribute and celebration of Lena
Zavaroni’s life which highlights her natural talent. The Beacon Arts Centre is a fantastic venue as it’s
in Lena’s birth town and you can see the Isle of Bute where she was raised. The writing is remarkable
and Leslie Finlay’s directing style compliments this production well allowing us into the world of the
Link for tickets- Get your tickets for ‘Lena’ at the Beacon Arts Centre via the link below: