The Fringe has seen many plays about the lives of deceased stars from the 60s and 70s in recent years, but none have been more moving than Lena, the story of Lena Zavaroni, the singer from Bute who rose to fame at the age of 10 in 1974 after appearing on Opportunity Knocks, the X Factor of the time.
Tim Withnall’s script opens with Zavaroni, played by Erin Armstrong, in hospital by the side of her dad, (Alan McHugh). She has just gone through a controversial medical procedure that they both hope will finally cure her of the anorexia that has destroyed her life.
How did she get here from that first TV appearance? John Culshaw playing Opportunity Knocks host Hughie Green, enters the stage doubling as omniscient narrator and key character in her early years.
The script goes back to before Lena became famous, showing her singing in a band fronted by her mum Hilda (Julie Coombe). Lena stands at the back of the stage enthusiastically copying her mum’s movements, a picture of happiness. She is spotted by a record producer who calls an agent (Helen Logan) who contacts a TV show producer and the wheels are set in motion.
It’s not just knowing how the story ends, with Zavaroni’s death from pneumonia at the age of only 35, that makes it so tragic. It’s seeing how the young girl got taken in, eaten up and spat out by an industry and an agent that viewed her as a commodity, sold her dreams she didn’t need to have and sucked the life out of her in the process.
McHugh, Coombe and Logan all give strong performances as the supportive father who is out of his depth dealing with contracts and fame, the mother who wants her daughter to be the star she never was, and the agent who skilfully manipulates the singer and takes control of her life.
However, the star turn is Armstrong who delivers an award-winning performance in the title role, capturing the enthusiasm and innocence of the young girl and charting her journey through to the lost and lonely young woman desperately trying to get her life back. As she sings Rescue Me, the Fontella Bass hit single, and extends her arm out pleading for someone to take it, the emptiness and tragedy is there for all to see.
Had Zavaroni lived she would be turning 60 next year, and who knows, may have been at the Fringe herself. This powerful and moving play goes some small way to providing her with the legacy she deserves.
Assembly George Square to 28 August
Photo by Terry Murden