Review: Conversations with Stacey Dooley, Cardiff

Fresh from her stint hosting the Strictly Come Dancing Live Tour, popular journalist Stacey Dooley has undertaken a tour of her own, hosting a series of ‘Conversations With’ across the country.

Last Friday, she arrived at St David’s Hall in Cardiff with close friend and singer Jessie Ware on hand to ask the all important questions.

Appearing on stage to the Spice Girls track ‘Spice Up Your Life’, as the evening unfolded, it soon became apparent that Stacey has certainly got plenty of incredible stories to share.

Coupled with short video clips from her earliest ventures into broadcasting (which she now admits make her cringe) through to her most recent work spending time exploring mental health issues on a psychiatric ward at Springfield Hospital in London, the evening provided a fascinating insight into not only her career, but the wide range of people she has encountered when making her shows.

It is interesting to hear that far from being a polished professional, Stacey’s journalistic career started when she spotted an advert as a teenager. Her first foray into documentary making came when she was whisked away from her job selling perfume at Luton airport to film inside an Indian clothes factory where she uncovered illegal child labour. But it was her refreshing reporting style and the fact that she didn’t conform to the normal ideals that persuaded the BBC Three producers to offer her further projects.

Fast forward ten years and Stacey has established herself as one of Britain’s most celebrated broadcasters. Addressing challenging issues and placing herself at the heart of conflicts around the world, Stacey offers a human perspective on the topics she tackles.

During the evening, she recalls with fondness the strong bonds she made with some of the subjects of her films. One in particular, clearly left a lasting impression as she reveals that Shireen, who was kidnapped and imprisoned in Mosul and who later, alongside Stacey confronted a captured ISIS commander, still keeps in contact via text message. It was through this communication that Stacey learnt that some time after the documentary was aired, Shireen and her sister, were reunited.

It is these human moments that set Stacey apart. On stage, she chats easily and freely, cup of tea in hand. There are no airs and graces, everything comes naturally. At the start of the show, Jessie announces that they will try their best not to swear but the resolution lasts only a matter of minutes. Yet it is not gratuitous, it is simply her style and the evening flows as naturally as if we were all friends sitting around reminiscing on the sofa at home.

After the interval, it was the audience’s turn to ask the questions via the #askstacey hashtag on Twitter. This revealed some more lighthearted moments, with a couple of cute references to boyfriend Kevin Clifton, who she met during her time on Strictly, thrown in for good measure.

As the show finished, Stacey announced she would be signing copies of her book, ‘On the Front Line With the Women Who Fight Back’ in the foyer. Such is the extent of her popularity, the queue snaked around the building, so much so that an hour later, she was still autographing books and posing for photographs, thanking everyone in turn for coming to see the show.

This is the Dooley effect. Natural, down to earth and brilliant at her craft. An evening that will live long in the memory.

Watch Stacey’s latest documentary about mental health via BBC iPlayer here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p082bxzn

Interview: Ben Forster

It’s been an incredible year for Ben Forster. Just twelve months ago, he was embarking on an audition in the hope of securing the role of Jesus in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. He sailed through the early rounds and wowed audiences in the live shows on ITV’s Superstar before deservedly being crowned the winner in July.

Ben won the coveted role of Jesus in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’

Fast-forward twelve months and Forster is still living the dream. He has just completed a gruelling stint in the 40th anniversary production of ‘The Rocky Horror Show’, where he excelled as the geeky Brad Majors alongside former Emmerdale star Roxanne Pallet and there is plenty more in the pipeline.  Jesus Christ Superstar returns for a second tour for  UK audiences later in the year, but its success means international stardom beckons, with the musical heading to Australia and beyond this summer.

Ben, as Brad Majors, alongside Roxanne Pallet as Janet Weiss

It’s just reward for years of hard work treading the boards since he followed his dreams, moving to London as a 16-year-old to study at the Italia Conti Academy before appearing in West End shows such as ‘All You Need is Love’, ‘Grease’ and ‘Thriller’.

Despite his recent success, Ben still has both feet firmly planted on the ground and is charming and engaging when interviewed.

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It would seem that fame and fortune always beckoned and the signs of his promising future were evident at an early age. When talking about a talent contest he entered at school, Ben recalls:

“At my school there was a talent contest called ‘Search for a Star’. I think I was about thirteen or fourteen. My school was called Thornhill and the winner from there competed against all the winners from the other schools. It was a big competition to find the ‘Star of Sunderland’. That was my first one that I entered and I won!”

He also vividly remembers his first ever performance:

“I was five, so I was really young, and it was in an amateur production for children in Sunderland who wanted to act and sing. I sang ‘Zip-a-dee-doo-dah’, which I won’t give you a rendition of! I had one of those little false birds on my shoulder. There’s video footage of it and I look really stupid. Every time I watch I get embarrassed. I can’t watch myself.”

While he was always drawn towards singing and acting, the young Forster had plenty of other dreams and aspirations:

“As a child, I had loads of ambitions because I was actually really interested in lots of different things. I always wanted to be a singer because I loved singing and I loved being on the stage and being an actor but I also really love wildlife and photography, so for a few years when I was about ten or eleven I wanted to be a wildlife photographer.

I really love dolphins and whales. Not many people know that there are whales and dolphins around the coast of Scotland but I did a few trips there and it was amazing to watch them so it was an ambition to photograph them. But I always got drawn back into wanting to be a singer and being on the stage, so that’s what I chose in the end.”

It’s clear from speaking to Ben that musicals were a huge part of his childhood and massively influenced his career choice:

“I used to have a cassette tape of musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber and I used to practice them every night in my room. I was constantly singing along to ‘Starlight Express’, ‘Aspects of Love’ and ‘Phantom of the Opera’. That was such a big part of my life and I practiced so much.

I would probably say Andrew Lloyd Webber or Michael Ball were my role models as a child because I used to sing along to them quite a lot and I wanted to do musical theatre. I remember going to my first theatre show and being amazed. I couldn’t believe that people could perform in that way, to make you feel what you feel when you watch a musical.”

Ben’s stage performances have captivated audiences all over the country, but he admits that, even now, he has still been prone to the occasional bout of nerves and stage-fright:

“I have suffered from stage-fright in the past. I think it’s worse when you’re unprepared.  If you feel like you haven’t rehearsed enough or you’ve been given something to do on stage and you don’t know your lines 100%, or you might not feel secure with the dance or the song that you have to perform, then that’s when you get stage fright because you start to doubt yourself. But, if you rehearse and you make sure that you know everything, then it’s OK.

I don’t really get nervous, but sometimes on the first night of a show it can be scary. On the first night at the O2 when I was playing Jesus, I was quite scared, but I didn’t get stage-fright, I didn’t freeze. The key is to be prepared and then it won’t happen to you.”

It has been an incredible journey for the man from the North East, who left his home town of Sunderland at the tender age of sixteen to pursue his dreams, when he was offered a scholarship at the Italia Conti Academy in London. He recalls how difficult it was initially:

“It was scary. I’d never really lived by myself or done my own washing. I didn’t know how to work a washing machine. All that kind of stuff your mum always does for you.

Suddenly I was on a train to London by myself. It was weird. I had to go and do my own shopping and decide what I wanted to eat that week. I had to notice when I didn’t have any clean clothes left and that kind of stuff. I was also just by myself in a room.

I stayed in a YMCA right in the centre of London opposite my stage school and it was hard because when all my friends went home, I would go home and was by myself. But I knew that I wanted to be there because I wanted to be taught by the best teachers and learn how to sing and dance and act.

It was quite lonely really until I’d made some other friends and then they kind of become your family as well. The key is to have good friends.”

Good friends clearly come easy to Ben. When asked who is his favourite person he has worked with, he barely hesitates before answering:

“I’ve got to say Mel C from the Spice Girls. When I was in Jesus Christ Superstar, she was the judge on Superstar and then I got to work with her and she played my girlfriend in the musical. We lived with each other on a tour bus for the five weeks of the tour and we became really good friends. I think she’s a really lovely person.

When I was fifteen, the Spice Girls were so famous. Every single shop you went into, every TV station, every radio station, it was all about the Spice Girls. Arriving in America, arriving in Australia, taking over Japan. She’s had an amazing career and worked really hard but because of where she’s from and the fact she’s got a great family, she’s stayed a really nice person and has got her feet on the ground. She’s really nice to everyone she meets and she’s really talented.”

So what’s next for Ben? It’s evident there is plenty more to come, including more musicals:

“The good thing about doing the ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ show is that it’s highlighted what I can do to different directors and producers so I get really great offers to do different shows. There’s stuff planned for the next few years already so I’m definitely going to do more musicals.”

The future’ s certainly bright, but there are still ambitions to be fulfilled, and one in particular stands out:

“I would love to have a tour where people come just to see me rather than the show that I’m in. So if I get to release an album, then maybe, hopefully in the next few years, I would do a theatre tour where it’s my concert and people could come and listen to me.

If I was on stage, I would think all those thousands of people have bought a ticket just to listen to me and my songs and I’d feel like I’d got to the top of my career then. That would be good.”

There’s no reason to doubt this dream will soon become a reality. There are few that would deserve it more.