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'Meat Loaf is so generous and a normal guy... and he tells really amazing stories

 

Belfast-born actress and singer Christina Bennington takes to the West End stage this week to star in Bat Out Of Hell: The Musical. Here she tells Lee Henry about singing the tracks from the rocker's iconic album in her dad's car as a child and being star-struck after meeting the man himself.

Take a quick scroll through Christina Bennington's Twitter feed for a glimpse into the life of a leading West End actress. Juggling hours of rehearsals with a variety of gym classes, star-studded television interviews and long-haul flights, the Belfast-born performer certainly has her work cut out.

It's not all glitz and glamour, but in playing Raven in the first production of Jim Steinman's Bat Out Of Hell - a musical which opened at the London Coliseum yesterday after many years in the making and is based on Steinman's concept album originally recorded by rock god Meat Loaf - the former Methodist College student admits to currently "living the dream".

"My career trajectory has been textbook up until now," admits the twenty-something, who is contractually obliged not to reveal her true age lest it detract from audiences' belief that she is playing an 18-year-old. However her social media feed earlier this year showed her celebrating her 25th birthday, if the numbers on the cake are to be believed.

"My first job outside of college was at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, then I did regional theatre, playing a smaller role, then fringe theatre, playing the lead in Finian's Rainbow, and then covering the lead in a UK tour of Oklahoma," she says.

"I covered a leading role in the West End in Showboat and now I'm playing a leading role myself.

"It sounds like I planned it all, but I didn't - I climbed the ladder."

It was, she says, an "inspiring way to do it, given that I was able to learn from so many leading actors" while waiting in the wings to assume primary responsibility. But Christina has been preparing to take centre stage since childhood.

"Theatre has been a really big family affair all of my life," she says. Raised on Belfast's Lisburn Road with her little brother, John, and little sister, Karen, the actress's parents, Catherine and Ian, encouraged creativity.

"We were all part of the Lambeg Players, an amateur group, and I remember performing in pantos, plays and musicals at the Island Arts Centre in Lisburn when I was younger. My mum designed costumes and my dad performed.

"My grandfather, Earnest Bennington, was also involved in theatre. He acted and wrote plays too. I think my first role was as one of the Babes in the Wood in pantomime, but I got involved in more serious roles when I went to Methodist College in Belfast."

As a young girl, Christina spent "hours and hours" watching a DVD recording of Jesus Christ Superstar. "I've always been into classical, legit musical theatre roles. I loved Glenn Carter, who played Jesus. My brother, sister and I listened and sang along to it all the time. We knew every word," she says.

At Methodist College, she performed in every choir available and was made head girl. She recalls attending formal dinners, along with other heads of year, and breaking tradition to sing for her fellow schoolmates, teachers and assembled luminaries.

She has never been shy to perform and cites her Belfast roots as the reason behind her evident gift of the gab. "I'm not slow to chat," she says. "But that's good. As a leading actor, you have to be able to talk about a production and be nice to people during interviews."

In 2010, after finishing upper sixth, Christina began to study for a degree in musical theatre at the Guildford School of Acting in Surrey. It was no mean feat - classes began at 8.30am and an average day did not finish until 9pm at night. "And that was five or six days a week," she points out.

"For anyone who is interested in studying for that kind of intense degree, it is very much vocational. It was heavy on contact hours, as they say, and in skills training. You learn not just singing, acting and dancing, but also about professionalism, timekeeping, stamina, fitness."

Christina has maintained that discipline, and over the past few years, as she has expanded her professional repertoire and begun to enjoy a busy career, she has kept up her fitness regime. She enjoys PiYo workouts in particular, which bring together the essentials of Pilates and yoga, and visits the gym often to stay "show-fit".

So what is it like to finally bag that coveted lead West End role? "I've not done anything on this scale before," she says of Bat Out Of Hell. "Nothing even close. I've not been able to create a character like this, who has never been played by anyone else, and that's incredibly exciting."

Meat Loaf's classic rock album has been entirely reinvented for the stage. In the musical, Strat and his gang, The Lost, roam the streets of post-apocalyptic Obsidian, ruled by the tyrannical Falco. When Strat falls in love with Falco's daughter, Raven, he sets out to rescue her in a full-throttle tale of teenage love, youthful rebellion and living the rock 'n' roll dream.

Christina was familiar with Steinman's iconic rock tracks, and remembers her dad playing them in the car during trips around Northern Ireland - You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth, Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad, and Paradise By The Dashboard Light, plus the title track.

"Everyone has an opinion on how those songs should be sung," she says. "But it was important to our producer that we stake our own claim on them. It's a lot of pressure, but it's also a huge opportunity. This music is now a huge part of my life. It's a once-in-a-career moment."

The response from diehard Meat Loaf fans has been uniformly positive thus far, with thousands of them creating and joining dedicated Facebook fan groups after seeing the production when it debuted in Manchester's Opera House recently.

And Christina enjoyed her time there. "The people of Manchester are really like the people of Belfast," she says.

"They're very friendly, very approachable. It's the kind of place where everyone just wants to chat to you, which I'm okay with. I love the city."

Which of course made the Manchester suicide attack all the more difficult to stomach. Back on Twitter, Christina paid tribute to the victims: "Sending love to the strong, warm, amazing people of Manchester," she wrote. "Heart-breaking news."

After the premiere West End run of the show finishes in August, Christina will travel with cast and crew to Toronto for a run at the Ed Mirvish Theatre.

She has already been to promote the production, and there met the man himself - Meat Loaf, aka singer, actor and all-round showbiz nice guy Michael Lee Aday.

"He's a producer on the show, so I spent time with him on the press tour and it was great," she says. "He said to me, 'These songs are very much yours now, so you have to perform them your own way', and that was lovely.

"To be honest, I was quite star-struck. Initially I was led into this room, introduced to him very briefly and then we sat down to do a TV interview together, which was a really odd thing to have to do. But he is so generous and a normal guy - he really doesn't like to be called a legend or a genius - and he tells really amazing stories."

The Belfast woman describes Bat Out Of Hell as "a vocal marathon. It's relentless, it never really lets up". As such, taking care of her precious vocal chords is a priority, as is keeping well hydrated. After most shows she will steam her voice.

"But it's mostly about not over-singing the show," Christina says. "It's a very difficult technical exercise to not get carried away with the emotion or with the reaction from the audience.

"You have to refrain from singing as hard as you can in order to keep something in the tank for the rest of the week. The challenge is to perform well eight times a week."

Television audiences may well have seen snippets from the show, as Christina and her fellow cast members recently did stints on Britain's Got Talent (BGT) and Live at the Palladium on ITV. She recalls being nervous for the Palladium performance and impressed by the size and scale of the BGT production.

"We met all of the judges and got to sit in their seats. And Simon Cowell was lovely," she says.

"He recognised one of the other cast members, who had actually competed on The X Factor before, and he was very supportive.

At the minute, though, all of her time is taken up with rehearsals, but once the show begins its run proper and she has more downtime, she will be able to enjoy the "little things", like reading and seeing other shows.

She has just finished rereading Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, which she originally read as a pupil at Methody while on a trip to India, and also enjoys Netflix series such as House of Cards.

As for the future, in the short-term Bat Out Of Hell is the be all and end all, but Christina has big ambitions for the future.

Asked what role she would most like to play in the future, she doesn't hesitate. "Mary Poppins," she replies. "I've always been obsessed."

Bat Out Of Hell: The Musical will be at the London Coliseum until August 5. For more details and tickets, visit londoncoliseum.org

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