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Co Down actress Rhiannon set to bare all in order to fulfil her dreams on the West End

Actress Rhiannon Chesterman, from Co Down, is to realise a life-long ambition by appearing on the West End stage, but her naked role may make her family blush. Stephanie Bell reports.

Published 28/01/2016

Poster girl: from left, Katrina Kleve, Emma Williams with Rhiannon in Mrs Henson Presents
Poster girl: from left, Katrina Kleve, Emma Williams with Rhiannon in Mrs Henson Presents
Rhiannon starring in The Fox on the Fairway
Cap and gown: Rhiannon in a graduation snap with her proud parents Irene and Dave

Northern Ireland's newest West End star Rhiannon Chesterman has had to warn her dad to close his eyes when he goes to see her debut performance in the heart of London's theatreland this year.

The 25-year-old will have to strip completely naked for one scene - with not one stitch of clothing on - in the hotly anticipated new musical Mrs Henson Presents but, despite the risque nature of her role, Rhiannon is thrilled to be realising a childhood dream.

She was just 10 years old when, as a treat, her mum took her to London to see her first West End show - right there and then she vowed that one day she would be on that stage.

Just 15 years later she is about to realise her dream as first understudy for the lead girl Maureen played by TV star Emma Williams - also appearing alongside Jamie Foreman of EastEnders fame, who plays Arthur, and double Olivier Award-winning performer Tracie Bennett, who plays Laura Henderson.

The play opens on February 9 at the Noel Coward Theatre and Rhiannon from Hillsborough, who is one of three stars chosen as a poster girl for the production, is currently trying to get used to seeing her face on billboards across the London Underground.

Based on the much-loved film that starred Dame Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins, Rhiannon was part of the original cast for Mrs Henderson Presents in its critically acclaimed world premier at the Theatre Royal in Bath back in 2014.

The musical tells the true story of eccentric wealthy widow Laura Henderson who, in the Thirties while looking for something to occupy her time, buys an old theatre.

When war breaks out and people opt to stay at home, to boost morale and the box office she comes up with the idea of The Windmill Girls - glamorous young women posing as nude statues - and the audiences flock back to her theatre.

Taking a quick break from rehearsals Rhiannon says she still can't quite believe that she is set to appear in the West End as one of the famous Windmill Girls: "I've always dreamed about being in a West End show and I am so excited. It hasn't really sunk in yet.

"I have done the show before when they tried it out in Bath two years ago, so London has been a long time coming and to be part of it is just the icing on the cake.

"The show is set to run until June, but hopefully if it is a success, it will run much longer.

"I am first cover of two for the lead part Maureen, so when she takes leave or is ill I have to step in so I need to be ready, and I know the show just as well as she does."

The naked scenes have created a bit of a pre-launch stir for the production but local girl Rhiannon insists she has had no problems baring on all on stage.

She revealed that during rehearsals everyone who had to be present during the naked scenes - including stage hands and production crew - had to join the actors by also stripping down to the buff.

She says: "It is very tastefully done and entirely relevant to the story, so it is not seedy in any way."

Just like the original Windmill Girls, Rhiannon and her co-stars will stand like naked statues, with nothing left to the imagination.

"When you are on stage with the lights on you feel as if there is a barrier between you and the audience which makes it easier.

"During rehearsals as a circle of trust anyone coming into the room had to be naked as well or they weren't allowed in - and that included the director, so we were all in it together which was pretty cool.

"My parents will be coming to see me, which will be a bit bizarre and I will be warning my dad at which point he will have to close his eyes."

Rhiannon's love of theatre was instilled in her as a small child when her mum took her to musicals and ballet performances in the Grand Opera House, Belfast.

And from the age of 10 she was privileged to be taken to London every year for a West End show.

She was also attending ballet classes from the age of five and began classical singing lessons when she was 10.

Her passion is for musicals and singing and, at 16, she started musical theatre singing lessons.

She was still buzzing from her very first West End visit to see Cats when she spotted an advertisement in her local paper for auditions for a production of Annie in the Island Arts Centre in Lisburn. Rhiannon landed the part of Molly, making her stage debut at just 11.

A pupil of Methodist College she was part of the school choir and honed her acting skills during her teens as a member of Youth Music Theatre UK and Music Theatre 4 Youth. She was also a member of the Fusion Theatre and, as a teenager, appeared in an Ulster Operatic Company production of High School Musical.

Despite her preparation for a career in theatre, Rhiannon says she refused to admit growing up that performing was her dream.

She says: "I told everyone I wanted to be a dentist. I remember my very first production of Annie when I was 11 and thinking to myself 'could this really be my job one day?'

"When I saw my first West End show Cats with my mum at the age of 10, I sat in the audience and told myself that one day that would be me up on stage.

"Methody was very academic and I loved doing drama but I didn't make it known that this is going to be my job, that I was going to be in the West End one day. I didn't really voice it. I don't know why, maybe because it's not something people expect you to aim for."

After A-levels, Rhiannon applied to the The MGA Academy in Edinburgh for one year and then went on to The Arts Education School where she studied for a BA Honours degree in Musical Theatre, graduating in 2012. Since then she has chalked up an impressive number of theatre credits including the lead role in Cinderella at the Richmond Theatre, Louise in The Fox on the Fairway (Vienna's English Theatre), Pookie in Tinseltown (Theatre at the Mill, Newtonabbey), Princess Beauty in Sleeping Beauty (Grand Opera House), as well as going on a UK and Ireland tour as Shelley in Hairspray.

Rhiannon, who has three older brothers, says parents Irene and Dave have been her greatest supporters since moving to London. Her parents are now both retired, and dad had worked in a local bank while her mum was a school teacher.

The up-and-coming theatre star shares a flat in London with two friends and admits, having grown up in the quiet village of Hillsborough, she did find life in the city daunting at first.

"It helps that one of my brothers lives in London and my family is very close and very supportive," she adds.

"I'm on the phone every day at least once, but usually twice, to mum and dad.

"You do have times when you are out of work and I just think you have to keep yourself happy, healthy and ready for when you do get a job.

"For me the chance to do the West End is a dream come true and it is really exciting to be part of something that is brand new. It's really weird, though, going round London at the minute and seeing myself on the posters for the show."

Looking to the future, she hopes to one day move into TV acting but for the time being is simply living her dream.

She adds: "I think it is pretty special what I am doing now and, hopefully as soon as word spreads, the show is going to be a big hit and will have a long run.

"My dream now is to be a West End leading lady and to do that every day of my life and you never know, maybe some TV in the future."

Belfast Telegraph

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