Theatre reviews: Lena | Hairspray

Erin Armstrong is heartbreaking as Lena Zavaroni in Feather Productions’ new play about the rise and fall of the 1970s child star, writes Joyce McMillan

Erin Armstrong in the title role in Lena PIC: Ian Watson
Erin Armstrong in the title role in Lena PIC: Ian Watson

Lena, The Beacon, Greenock ****

Hairspray, Playhouse, Edinburgh ****

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The full moon was marking magical silver pathways across the waters of the Clyde, as the audience gathered on Thursday evening at the Beacon in Greenock to see the world premiere of Lena, the new play with songs about the life of Lena Zavaroni created with loving care by Feather Productions and the Beacon, over many long lockdown months.

Born in Greenock in 1963, Zavaroni was a little girl from Rothesay on Bute, the daughter of the local chip-shop owner, whose astonishing voice and stage presence made her a sensational child star at the age of only 10, when she appeared on Hughie Green’s television show Opportunity Knocks, and immediately soared to transatlantic fame. The terrible downside of Lena’s career, though, was the anorexia nervosa that plagued her from the age of 13, gradually destroying her health and career, and leading to her death at only 35; and it’s this tension between her brilliant, meteoric talent, and the heavy price she paid for her success, that playwright Tim Withnall seeks to explore in Lena.

Across two acts of an hour each, Lena’s story is told in the form of a flashback from the time of her death in 1989, by Hughie Green as narrator, and by her father Victor, whose younger self is played with great poignancy and feeling by Alan McHugh. There are still moments when the play seems a little more like a work in progress than a finished article; there’s a huge and repetitive emphasis, for example, on the negative influence of Lena’s London agent, Dorothy Solomon, portrayed here as a vicious snob who both removes Lena from her family, and encourages her anxiety about weight and appearance – yet relatively little focus, either factual or imaginative, on Lena’s own experience of her years of success.

None of this, though, can diminish the sheer tragic power of Zavaroni’s story; and with a slightly tighter dramatic structure – perhaps built more explicitly around Victor’s personal narrative – there’s no doubt that Lena could become a classic showbiz drama, foreshadowing many of the issues around body image and self-punishment that, in the age of social media, have come to haunt the lives of millions of young women. At the centre of the drama, Erin Armstrong brings Lena to life with a combination of sweetness, determination and mighty talent so powerful and heartbreaking that it only leaves us wishing for a version of the play that might give her a little more to do; and finally offer a fuller picture of Lena herself, the remarkable young woman at the heart of the story.

Showbiz success, and its relationship to body image, is also a major theme in Marc Shaiman’s 2002 musical Hairspray, based on the 1988 film; but if Lena is a new musical drama gradually finding its shape, Hairspray in its current UK touring version is a magnificently complete and well-honed evening of musical theatre, presented with a skill and exuberance that truly lifts the heart.

Hairspray famously tells the upbeat tale, set in Baltimore in 1962, of chubby and gifted teenager Tracy Turnblad, who – with the help of her friends – sets about breaking down all the barriers of race, class, and sheer body fascism that stop the city’s young people from fulfilling their true potential. Katie Brace is an adorable Tracy Turnblad, Alex Bourne and Norman Pace delightful as her parents Edna and Wilbur, and Bernadette Bangura – stepping up for a Covid-hit Brenda Edwards – a pretty unforgettable Motormouth Maybelle; in a show fairly bursting with the hope and joy we all need, now more than ever.

Lena is at the Beacon, Greenock until 19 March; Hairspray is at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, until 19 March, and at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, from 28 March until 2 April.

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