Mum died soon after Ben was born and I miss her: Belfast actress Rachel Tucker
Belfast actress Rachel Tucker tells Una Brankin about her family’s influence on her career, and being inspired by Meryl Streep
Of all the superstars Rachel Tucker has met on Broadway, it was Meryl Streep who left her completely in awe. And it appears the admiration went two ways.
The legendary Oscar winner went to see Rachel in Sting’s stage musical The Last Ship and arrived backstage to pay her a compliment after the show.
“I was totally star-struck,” admits the Belfast-born singer and actress. “Meryl said ‘I can’t believe how you jumped around the stage — you’re like a cheetah.’
“It was such a compliment, coming from her. She was so moved by the show, she cried her eyes out. She’s very elegant and also very nice.”
If she has her way, Rachel will be giving Meryl a run for her money at the Oscars one day.
Catapulted to fame as a semi-finalist in I’ll Do Anything, Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s 2008 reality show to find a Nancy for his production of Oliver!, the former Little Flower pupil is planning to rest those rich, power-house vocals for a while to pursue an acting career in the US.
Along with her husband, theatre director Guy Retallack, and son Ben (3), she intends to move after her West End stint in Wicked concludes in mid January 2017.
“I’d love to be in Game of Thrones — I could be one of the Stark daughters!” she says excitedly. “I’d give my right arm to be in that, or something like Madam Secretary — there are a lot of Broadway names in that — or The Good Wife.
“There are some possibilities — I can’t talk about that yet but hopefully something will come out of it. I’d love to do film and TV work. Thanks to doing Broadway twice, I’ve got my Green Card as an ‘alien of extraordinary ability’.
“There are more opportunities open to me in the US; I’m always cast as a musical theatre actress here and it’s hard to get seen for TV and film roles. I’m already perceived more-so as an actress in New York.”
She’s speaking — in a gravelly north Belfast twang — from the Apollo Theatre in London, where she’s reprising her widely acclaimed role as the Green Witch Elphaba in the 10th anniversary run of Wicked, the smash-hit musical story of the witches of Oz. It’s a triumphant return to the West End for Rachel, whose Broadway performance of the part won her a WhatsOnStage Award and a Broadway.com Audience Choice Award.
Her Wicked co-stars include actress Anita Dobson, who plays Madame Morrible.
“Oh yes, I remember Anita as Angie from Eastenders, and Dirty Den, or Dirty Dick as we used to call him,” she laughs.
“She’s a wonderful singer and actress and a beautiful person. She knows what she’s doing and we’ve had lots of laughs.
“I met Brian May, who is Anita’s husband, before, during We Will Rock You — he’s lovely too. He has still got that mad curly hair.”
Back when Den and Angie were brawling on Eastenders in the late 1980s and 1990s, Rachel was performing with her well-known father, Tommy (Tucker) Kelly and her sister Margaret on the now non-existent Belfast cabaret circuit, with their family troupe, Kelstar.
Margaret now works as a hairdresser in the city and her brother, John (38), who has suffered from kidney problems since birth, lives with Tommy. Sadly, Rachel’s mother Kathleen Kelly died in 2013, at 65, just three months after the birth of her grandson Ben. She was given the bad news that her breast cancer had returned around the time of Ben’s birth.
“She was in remission but it came back and went into her bones. She died three months later. It was very quick but she was in a lot of pain, so ...” Rachel tails off.
“But she did get to meet Ben. She wasn’t doing well at the time but she knew who he was. She had her good and bad days. I miss her terribly but she was really in pain.”
A former nursing home carer, Kathleen supported and drove Rachel to her rounds of auditions as a teenager, but was never the pushy ‘stage mom’ according to her daughter, who credits Kathleen for imbuing her with a positive but realistic attitude.
As she recalls: “If I didn’t get the part I wanted, she’d tell me to take it on the chin and move on to the next thing. She always said, ‘you get the ball and you move the goalposts’.
“Mum was a good singer but only ever sang when she was drunk! I’m very like her. Dad says she’ll never be dead while I’m alive. I have the same sense of humour and mannerisms.
“She was so proud of me,” she adds. “I do think she’s watching from wherever we go to when we die. And dad’s doing great. My brother John (38) lives with him. He was born with kidney problems and stuff, and has always been sickly. He’s good company for dad.”
The Kellys lived on the well-to-do Old Cavehill Road in north Belfast. At one stage in the late Eighties and early Nineties, their next-door neighbours included the three brothers from the original line-up of Newry band The 4 Of Us (one of whom happens to be my husband, Declan). When I tell her, she shrieks.
“Oh my God — I can’t believe it. I used to fancy them. I loved their music. We used to come home from school and watch them rehearsing and shout at them through the hedge. You can tell him that was me.”
(I did — and he recalls very well the disembodied ‘hedge monsters’, as the band affectionately referred to their young neighbours.)
Rachel went on to do a performing arts course at Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education, where she studied singing, acting and dance for two years. Her first opportunity to perform in a professional show came with Rent, which arrived in the city looking for a mainly local cast.
“My best friend and I went along to the audition, thinking it would just be great experience, but actually both landed the lead roles, to our complete surprise,” she remembers. “So there I was — 19 and about to play one of the best female roles in the most exciting musicals of the decade.
“I have to admit, I landed on my feet; to have played Maureen in Rent as my first paid show was such an amazing start and opened many doors for me.
But it was always an ambition of mine to train at a drama school — I felt that if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be fully prepared or ready to audition for the big West End musicals.”
So, when she heard good reports from a friend who had been to the Royal Academy of Music and loved it, Rachel auditioned and won a place on a one-year postgraduate course in musical theatre.
“It was everything a drama course should be, and more. The biggest lesson I learned was not to be afraid to stand-up and hold my own on stage — up until then, I hadn’t felt totally comfortable in my skin, but during that time I developed how to just ‘be’.
“I knew that I had a big voice but it wasn’t until my studies that I discovered how to use it technically. I soaked up all the good advice I could. It was the most exciting, intense year of my life.”
As a result of her final showcase at the Academy, Rachel was noticed by an agent, who immediately sent her out to audition for stage roles. Before long, she was on her first UK tour in a 10 month contract with The Full Monty, followed by six months on the road with Tommy, The Musical, and another six months with Tonight’s the Night.
After almost two years on the road, she decided to hold out for the right show to come along in the West End, while travelling back and forth home to Belfast to do plays and shows at the Lyric Theatre.
“My absolute favourite was playing the role of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz — it was a role that had always been on my wish list, and it even had the lovely Liam Neeson doing the Voice of Oz. I was in heaven. I was still playing Dorothy when I saw the ad looking for girls to audition for the role of Nancy in Oliver! — all to be televised in I’ll Do Anything.
“And I suppose, the rest is history.”
The TV exposure led to the part of Meat in Queen’s We Will Rock You, Rachel’s first West End show. In same year she co-presented The Friday Show with Eamonn Holmes and sang to hundreds of people with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Hampton Court. Later, between stints of her dream role as Elphaba in Wicked, she won a starring role in Sting’s musical, The Last Ship.
Unfortunately, the show floundered on Broadway, just months after it opened in September 2014. Sting was even drafted into the cast, replacing Jimmy Nail, in a last ditch attempt to save the show, but audiences just didn’t respond in enough numbers to save the production.
Rachel has no regrets over her involvement, describing the musical as “a beautiful work of art” that was perhaps too niche for mainstream Broadway.
“Sting’s a beautiful soul and homo-sapien,” she says with feeling. “It was so brilliant working with him. I was a bit intimidated to begin with but he’s so generous and kind, and warm.
“He certainly still is handsome — and he knows it! I met lots of his famous mates when they came to see the show, like Steven Spielberg and Bruce Springsteen and Tom Hanks and Harvey Keitel. Stevie Nicks saw it 12 times. I’ve met Sting’s wife Trudi, too. She’s a lovely woman too. She has her own acting projects.“
When she’s not performing, Rachel helps her husband run their Bridge House theatre company above their local pub in Penge, an up-and-coming part of south east London. They put on a variety of plays, from Shakespeare to Christmas shows.
“It would be lovely to be somewhere like Kensington but it’s very pricey up there,” she says.
“We’re near Crystal Palace and we have a garden, which is good for Ben. He’s at pre-school three days a week now.
“We’ve no plans yet for another child, with the move to the States and all that, but maybe in a couple of years we will. If we’d settled in London, we probably would have had more children by now.”
It’s evident that she prefers New York to London, praising the American emphasis on good service and “courtesy, openness and warmth” — something she finds missing in the English capital.
“It was a bit of a culture shock coming back after a year in New York. We lived in Brooklyn and I loved it. I’d take family and friends, who came over to visit, on walks to the Brooklyn Bridge.
“The night life’s good, too. I like to dress up in a nice frock now and again, and do the whole red carpet thing but I also like to relax at home on my days off, wherever I am.”
She has nothing definite lined up, work wise, in New York and is going on spec. Isn’t she taking a risk in the fickle world of show business?
“I’m not afraid to take risks,” she asserts. “Like when I was doing We Will Rock You, and it was time to renew my contract, I didn’t — because I knew I had to be available if Wicked came up. I threw it out into the universe and thankfully I got the role.
“If you want to succeed, you have to take risks. As my mum used to say, ‘jump and a net will appear’.”
She has worked steadily since I’ll Do Anything in 2008, but laughs off a recent description of herself in the media as “one of the most bankable musical stars of the West End”.
“Bankable? Ha! I didn’t see that. I am very grateful for the exposure I’ll Do Anything gave me and I’ve have done very well from being in a hit show, and I’m very lucky with work and to be financially okay.
“But you don’t get into this business for the money. I’ll never forget my mum asking me — I was 15 — if I’d be happy to earn my living in the back row of the chorus and not much else for the rest of my life.
“I said ‘absolutely’. There was never any question about me not wanting to take to the stage for a living; it felt as though it was the only option in front of me, and a very natural thing for me to do as a career.
“I love it and I’m still passionate about it,” she adds.
“I get fan letters asking for advice; if I can inspire people, that’s a great thing. I like being in a position to help kids – there are a lot of very talented kids in Northern Ireland and they don’t get enough outlets to show off their talent.
“They have to go to the UK, like me. You can have a career in London in music theatre. I love it that young kids can look up to me.”
With that she’s off to do a radio interview with Jonathan Ross — “Wossy! I can’t wait.” Then it’s back to the Apollo for curtain-up at 7.30pm.
“Performing on the West End and Broadway was always a dream of mine and it actually happened,” she concludes.
“I have had the opportunity to do both. Wicked has been very good to me and this run feels like coming home — until I head off to the States next year.
“I don’t know what that holds but I’m willing to take the chance.”