Talent show winner Ben Forster has made the transition from loincloths to suspenders for his latest role. Katy Wheeler spoke to the Sunderland-born star about where it all began.
THERE’S no place like home for theatre star Ben Forster. As a teenager with dreams of making it in musical theatre, he made countless trips to the Sunderland Empire to see shows – now the tables have turned and he is well and truly in the spotlight.
For the first time since winning ITV’s Superstar talent show and for the first time in his 12-year theatre career, the 31-year-old former Thornhill School pupil is playing to a home crowd on his beloved home stage.
He’s making Mackems laugh and tap their toes all this week in a 40th anniversary run of the Rocky Horror Show.
“It means so much to me to play the Sunderland Empire,” he said. “I lived a quarter of a mile away in Millfield and it’s a place I used to walk past every day on my way into town.
“I’ve been to so many shows here growing up, from panto, to Oklahoma and Madame Butterfly. It’s such an amazing asset to Sunderland. It gives people in Sunderland the chance to see major West End shows for a third of the price in London.”
It was in the Empire’s red seats where Ben first discovered his passion for the stage.
As an eight-year-old, he was frightened by Grotbags in panto, who shouted to him from the stage and as a 14-year-old he was moved to tears when he came to see Blood Brothers 13 times during one run.
Now he’s the one stirring emotions in the audience. His is a Billy Elliot-esque tale of chasing your stage dreams and becoming a star.
After leaving school, he worked as an apprentice graphic designer in Thompsons Printers before securing a place at the prestigious Itali Conti School in London.
At the time, the school fees cost more than his parents’ house, but a scholarship gave Ben the chance to pursue his passion and at 17 he moved to the bright lights of London.
His talent was soon spotted and in his second year at theatre school he secured a West End show.
He worked prolifically in the field for the next decade before he heard that Andrew Lloyd Webber was going to make an ITV show to search for the new star of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Winning that show would change Ben’s life forever, propelling him to theatre stardom.
“Obviously, my personal life has stayed the same, I would be just as happy singing in a pub, which I used to do, as I would singing in arena and I honestly mean that,” he explains.
“The level of talent out there at the minute is so high, but what Superstar did was to put a little spotlight on my face and show people what I could do. I’m so lucky.”
No rest for Ben after winning Superstar
Since winning the show last summer, Ben has had only four days off work and is constantly recognised – but he says he’s more than grateful for the public support which allowed him to achieve his goal.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I don’t think I would have won that show without the support of Sunderland people and the Sunderland Echo. I didn’t expect any of it,” he said. For this week, as a rare treat, Ben’s been able to go to work and then sleep at his old home in Millfield where mum June and dad Ted still live and enjoy his favourite curry from Zeba in Hylton Road – something he says he hankers after when in London. Along the way, he’s constantly bumping into Mackems who made his dream come true. He said: “I’ve been getting recognised by taxi drivers and people in the coffee shop. Even the cleaners at the Empire said they had voted for me and how proud they were of me. It’s an amazing feeling to think they have done that for you.” Ben is playing the role of Brad for the next week of the tour in Glasgow before rehearsals start for an international run of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Sunderland has been the penultimate location for his stint as Brad, but it’s one he says he’ll cherish.
“My mam, dad, aunties, uncles and cousins were in the audience for opening night, so I was definitely more nervous than if we were opening in, say, Bristol,” he said about Monday’s opening night. “But I was more excited about them seeing the show. I knew they would love it and that they would love the character.”
He added: “I will miss playing Brad and it’s a role I’d like to play again someday. Rocky is very much its own animal, it changes every night because of the audience. Some nights it can by timid, but some nights it’s wild, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when the die-hard fans come who know all the lines.
“It’s difficult because you have to say your line, listen to see if there’s a response, judge whether it’s loud enough for other people to hear, respond, or carry on. And you have to do all that while staying in character. It really tests you as an actor.”
From being lashed as Jesus, to getting a tongue-lashing from the cheeky Rocky audiences, Ben is loving every minute of his much-deserved time in the spotlight.
•The Rocky Horror Show runs at the Sunderland Empire until Saturday. For tickets, call 0844 871 3022.