West End and Broadway star Rachel Tucker has said more needs to be done to help beleaguered theatres across the UK reopen safely next year.
The north Belfast entertainer, who had just kicked off a run of the hit musical Come From Away in New York when Covid-19 struck, said theatre was vital for communication, culture and good mental health and that its value had been unappreciated.
The London-based musical theatre fan favourite (39) said she had been fortunate to keep working during the pandemic, running masterclasses online, taking part in live streaming shows and virtual musicals and performing in two socially distanced shows at the London Palladium.
But she said many other people in the arts and entertainment industries had been adversely affected by the global pandemic and that more needed to be done by the Government, who have pledged a £1.57billion rescue package for the sector, to get them back into work.
"I had just done 10 shows of Come From Away on Broadway back in March, but then Covid kicked off and I had to come back to London," she says.
"To begin with, it was lovely to be home and safe with my family and I was lucky enough to be able to do gigs online and some coaching and master-classes.
"But theatres need more help to reopen and to get people back to work. At the panto in the Turbine Theatre in London, everyone was in masks, people entered in twos and there were screens between seats. It was perfectly doable.
"And when we did Songs For A New World, it was socially distanced and brilliantly run, so it can be done.
"Of course safety comes first but theatre, whether it's musicals or plays, can be great therapy and good for mental health, diversity, culture and educating children.
"I don't think people realised just how cathartic going out to a show can be until they stopped going out. You can't underestimate what the arts can do for people's hearts and minds."
Rachel, who is best known for her role as Elphaba in both the West End and Broadway productions of Wicked, was due to move to New York this year with husband Guy Retallack and their seven-year-old son Ben, but the pandemic forced them to cancel their plans.
Instead, the trio will spend Christmas at home in London, which moved into tier three earlier this week. "It will be just the three of us for a change, which will be nice," Rachel says. "It can't be helped but we will have a lovely time."
The award-winning singer and actress, who rose to fame in the 2008 television talent show I'd Do Anything, will be sharing some of her favourite Christmas songs from festive movies and musicals, as well as her childhood memories, as part of a Christmas Day special for Radio Ulster.
From Elf to Home Alone, Frozen to White Christmas, Rachel will be spreading seasonal cheer with the one-off programme Christmas Showstoppers, which will be broadcast on December 25 at 3pm.
As well as sharing her favourite festive tunes, she will also regale the audience with her backstage stories on friends like Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, who sing them, together with vintage tracks from Angela Lansbury and Judy Garland.
The programme is produced by Marie-Louise Muir for Find Your Voice Productions.
"It will be a nice, nostalgic trip down memory lane with songs from my favourite musicals and films as well as memories from my childhood in north Belfast," says Rachel.
"There will be some modern tunes in there but plenty of old classics as well. It was hard to narrow down the songs but I guess they all have my vibe; the theatre side of things. I've gone for songs from the stage and big screen, not just regular Christmas songs.
"If I was to pick my own favourite Christmas song, it would be Cool Yule by Bette Midler. I'm such a big fan of hers."
Growing up on the Antrim Road, music was a huge part of family life, particularly at Christmas time. Rachel sang in a band with her father Tommy 'Tucker' Kelly and sister Margaret and their house echoed with music throughout the festive season.
"We set up all the musical equipment in the living room and that's how we entertained ourselves at Christmas," recalls Rachel.
"We'd have big sing songs and my brother John's mates would all drop by and we'd literally sing right through to Boxing Day, like one big karaoke session. It was great fun.
"The idea of playing board games or watching television didn't really appeal to us. We loved to sing."
Rachel, who lost her mum Kathleen in 2013, says Christmas has always been a magical time for her and she looks back fondly on her childhood and the effort her parents put in to making it so special.
"I remember us waking each other up and going down the creaking stairs, not wanting to be the first one into the room in case Santa was there, but wanting to see what he'd left," she recalls.
"We were so lucky with the amazing gifts and toys we got every year. I just remember thinking how amazing Santa was that he'd spent so much time making us all those things we'd requested.
"I also remember, when we lived up the Antrim Road, we had a huge front garden and Margaret, John and me making the biggest snowman and having a huge snowball fight. That's such a clear, photographic memory for me."
Now that she's a mum herself, Rachel says she wants to recreate the happy memories of her own childhood for Ben.
"Since November we've been trying to sort out his present list. He's nuts about Star Wars Lego," she reveals.
"I absolutely love doing it for him though. Mum and dad went out of their way to make sure we had a fabulous reaction on Christmas morning and I want to leave Ben with spectacular memories too.
"We got him a drum kit two years ago and he's good at that. My dad calls him the 'little drummer boy'. But he's quite shy; he's definitely not front and centre like I was. I think he's happy in the background, playing away on his drums."
÷ Christmas Showstoppers is on Friday, December 25, BBC Radio Ulster at 3pm, and also on BBC Sounds.