Belfast actor Christina Bennington on performing in the West End
From head girl to leading lady - Christina Bennington's star is in the ascendant. The Belfast actress tells Karen Ireland about the important influence of her parents and playing to rapturous audiences in London's West End
She is currently playing one of the top roles in the West End, as Raven in the rock musical Bat Out of Hell. And Christina Bennington, who is originally from south Belfast, owes landing the job of a lifetime to her parents back home.
"I was very fortunate when it came to leaving school that my mum and dad allowed me to pursue my dream of acting," she explains.
"As a former head girl of Methodist College in Belfast, there was a certain expectation on me to go down the academic route, to study something like law or medicine, but I always wanted to be an actress.
"Luckily, my mum and dad supported my decision. They let me choose my own path. Thankfully, it paid off."
After completing her A-levels, Christina was offered a place at Guildford School of Acting in Surrey.
"It was one of the toughest transitions," she recalls. "Mum and dad came with me to my halls of residence the first time - I remember when they left me, I burst into tears. I felt so lonely and scared about what lay ahead, but it really was the best decision I ever made.
"My life changed dramatically. Many people do not realise the discipline that's involved in acting school.
"My days would start at 8.30am and go on until 9pm. It was very long and intense, but I learnt so much."
Christina owes a lot of her skillsets, including her strong vocals, to the early training she received at Methody, where she was involved in every play and every choir.
"At school, I learnt to sight-sing, which is singing a piece of music on sight," she says. "It's a very useful tool for theatre."
Following her three years in Guildford, Christina had a small window in which to start looking for work.
"It is a very competitive industry and everyone comes out of college fresh and ready for auditions," she says.
"It was a very daunting but exciting time. You only really have the space of a couple of months to get yourself out there and to start applying for jobs.
"I was very fortunate, because I got an amazing agent right away.
"I think that is the key to getting ahead in this industry. You need someone who will fight for you and fight to get you into the room and be seen for auditions."
The industry is not for the faint-hearted. You have to be prepared to work hard and take the highs with the lows."You need to realise that, as an actor, there might not always be work for you, but at the same time, you need to pay the bills and afford to live, so you have to learn to take jobs in between acting roles," Christina says.
"It comes with the territory. I've worked as a nanny and a waitress while waiting on jobs to come up."
Her first break in theatre came not long after leaving college, when she was offered a part in a production of A Christmas Carol at a theatre in Birmingham.
"That was a real learning curve for me," she admits. "I learnt so much when I was working. I had a terrific cast around me who taught me so much."
Next came a performance in a small theatre in London in a fringe production of Finian's Rainbow, in which she played the lead female role.
Her other parts have included stints in productions of Sweeney Todd, Show Boat and Oklahoma.
"This isn't an ordinary job or a nine-to-five role," she says. "It can be crazy climbing the ladder in acting - you tend to go up and down."
When the role of Bat Out of Hell's Raven was offered to her, Christina had her doubts.
"When my agent mentioned it, I was thought there was no way I could do it," she admits.
"I couldn't sing rock every night - I was more used to classical-type theatre - but I decided to audition for the part anyway and see where it took me."
Then came the call that the producers wanted to see her again.
"They kept asking me to come back and I just thought, 'Well, if I am going to go for this, I better give it my all', so I went along for the ride and threw myself into it," Christina says.
"I was delighted when I was offered the part
"The casting team decided to take a chance on me. They could have gone with a 'name', with someone with a profile, but they said they liked what I brought to the role and how I made Raven come to life."
Since then, Christina has been touring with the show in Manchester and Toronto, and is currently playing to a packed Dominion Theatre in London.
"It has been a fantastic adventure and an amazing role to play," she says.
"The sets and the show are larger-than-life and it is a tremendous privilege to be part of it all."
The production is based on Meat Loaf's best-selling Bat Out of Hell album, which Jim Steinman originally wrote as a musical before turning it into a record.
"It is hard not to be moved by the music," Christina says. "The songs speak to everyone. There is a real joy which comes from the music.
"We have packed out shows every night and everyone is on their feet singing and dancing.
"I still have to pinch myself every now and then - I am so fortunate to get to do this as a living. I have turned my passion and my hobby into a career and I feel very fortunate."
Out of all the thousands of fans of the show, there are two very special seats in the audience on many nights.
"My parents have seen every show I have ever been in, but I think they have fallen in love with Bat Out of Hell - they have been to see it about 20 times," Christina says.
"I have a brother and sister at home who come over to visit me and come to see the show. I love knowing there are members of my family in the audience.
"Due to my schedule, I don't get to go home very often, but my family come back and forth and see me all the time, and they always come to he show."
She she has another huge fan in her partner, who is very proud of her, but Christina won't be drawn on any details of this part of her life.
"I am very happy and very much in love, but I like to keep that side of my life very private," she says. "When you live your life out on stage, you like to keep some things precious to you.
"The show has brought a lot of people together. We have a lot of fans who say they made real friendships through coming to see and being fans of the show. People just love it - the response has been amazing."
Away from the stage, Christina loves to read, so she is trying to switch off all technology and learn to retrain her brain to focus on a book. She also listens to audiobooks of Harry Potter before going on stage every day as a way of calming down.
"As an actor, you need to take care of your mental health," she says. "There isn't much stability in this industry, so you tend to latch on to things. I have got into health and fitness. I do Pilates and cardio every week. It is good for overall wellbeing."
Right now, Christina is living her dream and doing a job she loves, but she is always on the lookout for the next thing.
"This is my dream role, but I'm always on the lookout for interesting projects," she admits.
"I would love to do film or TV because it would be a different world and different discipline again.
"I always like to challenge and push myself and try things I have never done before. That's why Raven is so exciting and keeps me young at heart.