Derry~Londonderry Welcomes The Rocky Horror Show

Talent show competition winner Ben Forster is relishing his latest role in Richard O'Brien's gender-bending musical comedy

‘It’s a fairy tale that goes on forever. It doesn’t ask much of its audience, and yet it’s not just a piece of nonsense and froth, because if it was it wouldn’t have lasted 40 years. There’s something about it that works on a subliminal level with the audience.’

The words of Richard O’Brien, speaking in a BBC interview about the 40th anniversary production of his hugely popular cult musical The Rocky Horror Show, which comes to the Millennium Forum in Derry~Londonderry in the first week of September, as part of an extensive UK touring schedule – the only Irish date during the UK City of Culture year.

In the role of nerdish central character Brad Majors will be a face familiar to watchers of ITV’s Superstar programme last year, in which Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber presided over a nationwide talent search for a singing actor capable of taking the lead role in a new production of Jesus Christ Superstar.

The winner of that tortuous, nail-biting contest was Ben Forster (pictured above right), a 32-year-old from Sunderland, for whom the last 12 months have been ‘crazy’.

‘It’s the kind of stuff you dream about when you’re, like, ten,’ explains Forster. ‘And you go, “Yeah, I want to be a singer, I want to be on stage”. In our job of entertaining, you just never know what’s round the corner. But doing something like Superstar and then winning, it really opens up so many other things in your life.’

Participating in Superstar was, for Forster, clearly a somewhat nerve-wracking process, even though he was already a seasoned music theatre professional with more than a decade in the business behind him. Singing for Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber was, he says, a particularly intimidating experience.

‘Terrifying. Even when he walks into a room everyone shudders because, you know, he’s a genius. He’s created so many amazing things, his music is so beautiful and gets performed every day in hundreds of countries all over the world.

‘But Andrew was very nice to me,’ Forster continues, ‘although if I’d known what was in front of me at each step in the competition, I don’t know whether I’d have been able to do it. Now that I know what it was, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it again.’

The arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar that followed the television series was hugely successful, and Forster is returning to Lloyd Webber’s show for a second tour in October 2013, when his current stint in The Rocky Horror Show is over. ‘He’s happy, I think, with the job that I do,’ is Forster’s comment – in the circumstances, something of an understatement.

To switch from playing the iconic role of Christ to Rocky Horror’s dweebish Brad Majors must, I suggest, be a truly jarring transformation. ‘It is,’ Forster agrees. ‘But an obvious one, actually. When I got offered it, I wanted to do something that wouldn’t typecast me, so people would know I was a versatile actor and could do some comedy. It’s just completely on the other end of the spectrum, which is why I chose it really.’

Moving away from the emotional intensity of playing Jesus every evening - ‘I’m wiped out after every show,' he comments – is, you sense, something Forster has found singularly refreshing. ‘I’d never done Brad. So it was a joy to discover him, and discover this sort of nerdy character. He’s so lovable, I absolutely love playing him. You can just be an absolute geek.’

Forster has clear views on why it is that Richard O’Brien’s show – which features beloved songs like 'The Time Warp' and 'Sweet Transvestite' – has remained so consistently popular with audiences over the past four decades. ‘Allowing people to escape’ is, he feels, the key to The Rocky Horror Show’s enduring appeal, and to its longevity.

‘When Richard wrote it, he was from a very, very small town in New Zealand, and obviously wanted to live his life the way he wanted to, and the way he felt that he should be as a human being. He kind of wrote it as an escape, I think.’

O’Brien’s ‘escape’ was from traditional gender roles and assignations. He has, famously, described himself as ‘about 70% male, 30% female’, and transvestism, as embodied in the character of Dr Frank N Furter, plays a central part in the whole Rocky Horror experience.

A cinema adaptation of the musical was released in 1975, with the title The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with Tim Curry in the lead role. Forster is convinced that the comedy musical strikes chords with a much broader audience – offering respite from the grinding predictability of everyday commitments, and the relentlessly target-driven culture of the 21st century workplace.

‘Everyone, no matter who you are, we follow each other, and we’re like sheep,’ he comments. ‘And sometimes, when you can just break free, even if it’s not the way you would want to break free, it’s just a release of some sort.

‘You look down, you know, and you see a man and wife, and they’ve both got suspenders on and high heels. And they’re just having a blast! Rocky Horror allows you to escape from the normality of life, which I think not many shows really do. We embrace the audience so much, and it’s such a massive part of the show.’

Touring major productions such as Jesus Christ Superstar and The Rocky Horror Show is a demanding business, with eight or nine performances a week to do, and then an ‘day off’, which is usually earmarked for travelling to another city. You must, says Forster, marshall your resources carefully.

‘I’ve got to stay healthy, that’s my main pressure. Especially after Jesus Christ Superstar, I can’t speak after that, so I’ve just got to drink tea and go to bed, otherwise I would lose my voice. And I definitely don’t drink alcohol during that show. I might have a few glasses of wine during Rocky Horror, because it’s not such a big sing. But I can’t go clubbing, otherwise I’m not going to give my best the next day.’

Forster is not, however, in any sense complaining, because he knows that he is literally living the dream of every aspiring music theatre performer. ‘I look back on my career with love,’ he muses.

‘When I was 18 I did my first West End show. And if Superstar hadn’t happened, I still would have been very proud of what I’ve been involved in and what I’ve done. What Superstar did was just highlight me a bit more and take it to another level. It’s different now when I go into John Lewis. All the women recognise me!’

The Rocky Horror Picture Show runs in the Millennium Forum, Derry~Londonderry from September 2 – 7.