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Singer Rachel Tucker: 'There is still no place like home'

Singing star Rachel Tucker will play a homecoming Belfast show next week, which will be her first performance here since becoming an international musical star on Broadway. She tells Helen Carson how her late mum's advice has kept her grounded during the ups and downs of her showbiz career.

Rachel Tucker says taking to the stage for a one-off Belfast to Broadway show at The Mac Theatre in Belfast's trendy Cathedral Quarter will be "very, very special and important" to her.

"This is the first time I have been back in Belfast and performing since I have been to Broadway. I am very aware of that fact, and I am excited and nervous."

The 34-year-old singing star, who grew up in north Belfast, was born into a musical family. Her father, Tommy (Tucker) Kelly was a familiar face on the city's cabaret circuit in the 1980s and 90s, and Rachel and her sister Margaret sang with the family troupe which was known as Kelstar.

While getting up on stage and belting out a song is second nature to Rachel, who has been performing famous songs from musicals since she was nine in the clubs of Belfast, she says next week's show will feature all the best bits from her career since hitting the big time 16 years ago.

"There will be everything from songs I have performed in the West End and Broadway. Being in Belfast and performing here is a very special time for me and my family," adds Rachel.

Having enjoyed a record-breaking run in the West End show, Wicked, she has only recently returned to her London home from a year-long stint in New York where she sang in Sting's musical The Last Ship, portraying Meg Dawson, a character created for her.

Rachel thought all her dreams had come true when she landed the role in the shipbuilding drama, last February, with the show debuting in September that year at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway, New York's famous world famous theatre district. But the role of a lifetime turned out to be a bittersweet experience for the Belfast songstress with the musical closing three months later due to poor ticket sales.

While Rachel has enjoyed stratospheric career success, especially in the West End production of Wicked where she broke the record for playing green witch, Elphaba, her upbringing - especially the advice given to her from her late mother, Kathleen has kept her strong.

Even Rachel's talent couldn't save Sting's production of The Last Ship which eventually floundered on Broadway just months after it opened.

The former Police frontman and award-winning songwriter 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.

"The show was a beautiful piece of art, but it just didn't stick with audiences," says Rachel. "Maybe it just wasn't what the world or Broadway was crying out for? When people (audiences in New York) pay $200 for a show they want to see something they can take the whole family to. That is why productions like The Lion King do so well - that's where the money is."

Rachel disagrees the Geordie accent was too challenging for American crowd, adding: "People in New York have seen Billy Elliott and other shows based in English cities outside London, so I don't think it was that, they are worldly. The Last Ship, which is a beautifully written piece, is about a love triangle and young men working in a shipyard. Audiences may prefer to see a show that allows them to forget about their worries for an evening."

While The Last Ship's content may not have ticked the family viewing boxes for enough people to keep it running longer, it had its share of celebrity fans, including Tom Hanks, Gloria Estefan, Stephen Fry and Billy Connolly all of whom thoroughly enjoyed it.

"Meryl Street cried her eyes out at show, she found it so moving and Steven Spielberg turned up twice," says Rachel. "We were on the Jimmy Fallon show, who has one of the biggest talk shows in America, to promote The Last Ship and he has never featured musical theatre."

While she was "heartbroken" at the failure of the Broadway show, Rachel says the whole experience of being based in New York with her theatre director husband, Guy Retallack and their two-year-old son, Ben was a wonderful experience.

"Living in New York for 10 months was incredible, it was everything I thought it was going to be and more. I was like Dorothy arriving in Oz. We lived in Manhattan which was unbearable sometimes because it was so noisy. There were sirens blaring, construction sites going, people shouting and swearing at each other."

She now also counts Sting as a close friend and admired his determination to make the show work: "He was a dream to work with. The man can do no wrong in my opinion. He is the first in the rehearsal room in the morning and the last out at night. He had to join the cast towards the end of the show's run, but it was difficult as he was touring with Paul Simon then too. I was emailing him today, now he is just a bit of a mate."

In true performer style, Rachel knows the show - in this case her career - must go on, and the showbiz adage is one she learned from her late mother, Kathleen who was her biggest fan and supporter during the hard slog of auditions Rachel faced in her teens, long before the bright lights of the West End.

She was a member of the Arts Youth Theatre during the late 1990s where one of her first teachers was the late Northern Ireland actor, Peter Quigley who she describes as a "fine actor and director".

At next week's Belfast show, Rachel will be joined by local artist, James Huish and many of the children from the Belfast School of Performing Arts, of which she is a patron.

"It is important for me to let those children know that it is possible to achieve your dream and have a career in theatre outside Northern Ireland," she adds.

Rachel attributes her mentoring abilities to her mum who she says has equipped her for both success and the inevitable knock-backs of a life in show business.

"My mum was no pushy parent," she points out. "She would drop me off for auditions when I was in my teens at the Lyric Theatre then give me my bus fare and say she would see me later at home. She wasn't hanging around in the wings geeing me on. I had to do it on my own, it was up to me.

"While my parents praised my talents, they kept me grounded. They kept me working hard. Later on when I was auditioning for shows such as Les Miserables and Miss Saigon and I would get a call not to come back and I would be on the phone to my mum crying, she would say 'have a good cry and take it on the chin. You can't feel sorry for yourself in this business, pick yourself up. If you weren't good enough for that job, then something else will come along.'

"She was good at being positive when there was a negative outcome to a situation. That is what my mum instilled in me. She was the wisest, wisest person, so realistic and down-to-earth. She was naturally positive.

"When the book, The Secret came out, I said to my sister, Margaret - 'that's our family, that's the way we were taught to think'."

And Kathleen's upbeat message has served Rachel well, especially following her recent experience on Broadway.

"When I was on stage in Broadway it was something that I had dreamt about all of my life. But when I went onto the stage and looked out at all the faces, then the lights hit my face so I couldn't see anyone, I realised that I could be anywhere, it didn't matter. It didn't matter that it was Broadway, all that mattered was the work that I was doing at that moment in time. You dream about these things, then when you are actually doing them, you learn it is about the work - that is what matters.

"And that is what I learned from my mum."

Rachel first sprung to national fame on Andrew Lloyd-Webber's 2008 reality show I'll Do Anything as he searched for an up-and-coming talent to play Nancy in his production of the musical Oliver!

The Belfast singer was one of the 12 finalists on the show who faced a public vote as well as a panel of celebrity judges for the coveted role in the musical. At one stage, Rachel faced fellow Northern Ireland contestant Niamh Perry, only to be saved in the vote by Lloyd Webber. Ultimately, though, she lost out to Samantha Barks at the end of the show's run.

Rachel says she was not disappointed at not taking the top honours on the show: "I wasn't necessarily in it to win it. I had performed all my life, done auditions, appeared in shows and it was the perfect opportunity to help my career take off. Appearing in front of 12.5m people on a Saturday night for several weeks - it was the perfect platform. I knew there were be casting directors watching it, and it would be an easy casting call for them if they noticed me."

Since then, Rachel's stage career has been stratospheric, performing numerous times in musical productions including many of those staged by Lloyd Webber. She has returned to her home town appearing at the Gay Pride Festival in 2008, then at Belfast City Hall as part of the nationwide celebration of the BBC Last Night of the Proms, flying to London the day after to sing at her I'll Do Anything mentor's birthday show in Hyde Park.

While she has dabbled in some television work, including the six-part entertainment series The Friday Show with Eamonn Holmes for BBC Northern Ireland, Rachel's heart lies very much on the stage. A mum herself now, Rachel has learned well from her mother, saying she would encourage her son, Ben to pursue his dream if it was one on the stage.

Sadly, Kathleen passed away just months after Ben was born in 2013, but it seems the performing talent hasn't skipped this generation.

"He sings all the time - at the moment it is the music from Frozen, and he loves coming to see me when I am performing. If he expresses an interest in performing I wouldn't not encourage him. I would be like my mum - as long as he is happy, that's what I want for him."

The family travel together as much as possible. "Ben isn't at school yet which means we can all be together even when we have to travel overseas," she says.

With a new album out, The Reason, Rachel says she has chosen 10 songs that had meaning for her, so it's a collection of some of her most significant tracks from her musical career.

Now, the family have relocated back to Penge in south east London from New York, and there is no time for them to be idle.

"Penge is what could be described as an 'up-and-coming' part of London and it has a nice park nearby. It is an affordable part of London and we all love living here."

The couple's latest venture is at their local pub, the Bridge House where they discovered some upstairs space which could easily function as a fringe theatre venue. A successful meeting with the pub owners, who also had a similar vision gave the green light to the venture, creating work for both Guy and Rachel. She says finding a joint opportunity on their doorstep is the cherry on the cake.

Rachel admits London is now her home and any trips back to Northern Ireland are temporary ones for work or visiting family. The capital provides the creative hub that sustains both her career and that of her husband's. Her commitment to the arts and its development in Northern Ireland for young hopefuls, as she once was, is unstinting.

She adds: "I have followed my dreams and there is no reason why other young people from Northern Ireland can't do this too."

  • Rachel Tucker: Belfast to Broadway, July 18, The Mac, tickets, £22.50. A one-off show featuring swing and musical theatre singer, James Huish

Other Northern Ireland stars who took the reality road to fame...

Bangor-born Niamh Perry (25) was also a finalist in the BBC talent show-themed television series I'd Do Anything in 2008, and played Fleck in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Love Never Dies. Perry attended Our Lady and St. Patrick's College, Knock, but left during her A-Levels in early 2008 and moved to London to compete in I'd Do Anything. She performed with MT4UTH in productions of Sweet Charity, in which she played the lead role. In 2009, it was revealed that Perry would play the role of Fleck in the original West End cast of Love Never Dies, which opened in March 2010.

Andrea Begley (29) from Pomeroy, won the second series of the BBC talent search The Voice UK, beating fellow Northern Ireland finalist, Leah McFall. After The Voice, Begley, who is partially sighted, was signed to Capitol Records. Her winning single "My Immortal" peaked at number 30 on UK Singles Chart and her debut studio album The Message was released in October 2013.

The 30-year-old former Girls Aloud star, Nadine Coyle, rose to fame in the early 2000s as a member of the chart-topping girl group. The group amassed a joint fortune of £30 million by May 2010. With Girls Aloud, Coyle has been successful in achieving a string of 20 consecutive UK top ten singles (including four number ones), two UK number one albums, and received nominations for five BRIT Awards, winning Best Single in 2009 for "The Promise". Coyle released her debut solo album Insatiable and its title track was released on in November 2010 through her own label, Black Pen Records.

Song-writer/singer Janet Devlin, from Gortin, Co Tyrone, (20) rose to prominence in the eighth series of The X Factor in 2011 where she finished in fifth place. Her debut album was launched in October 2012 via PledgeMusic with a limited "pledgers only" release on 1 July 2013. It received general release with new songs and reworked tracks in June, 2014. She is currently touring the West Coast of America.

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