‘My mum had can­cer but didn’t tell me or my sis­ter how se­vere it was be­cause we were both preg­nant. She died just three days after our ba­bies had been chris­tened’

As she pre­pares to star in a mu­si­cal about 9/11 Belfast-born Broad­way star Rachel Tucker talks to Donal Lynch about the grief of her mother’s death, love and mak­ing a fan of Meryl Streep

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - COVER STORY -

It’s early af­ter­noon at Three Mills Stu­dios in east Lon­don and the build­ing is swarm­ing with rad­i­cally coiffed and pierced young per­form­ers prac­tis­ing their scales in hall­ways and anx­iously flick­ing through scripts at can­teen ta­bles. This is where they film British tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tions like Jekyll and Hyde and Our Girl, but it’s also a pop­u­lar re­hearsal stage for some of the big West End mu­si­cals. One floor has been com­man­deered by feral-look­ing refugees from Cats. Across the hall, singers and ac­tors are re­hears­ing for the much-an­tic­i­pated Come From Away.

It is a show that seems at first im­pos­si­ble: a feel­good 9/11 mu­si­cal. The show por­trays the events that tran­spired after planes were redi­rected into ru­ral Cana­dian airspace after the no­to­ri­ous atroc­i­ties, and deftly in­ter­weaves the nar­ra­tives of pi­lots, pas­sen­gers and vil­lagers.

At a mo­ment when im­mi­gra­tion is one of the thorni­est is­sues around, its story of small-town pop­u­la­tions warmly open­ing their lives to strangers blew through the Amer­i­can theatre world like a warm wind, earn­ing the mu­si­cal uni­ver­sal ac­claim and a shelf­ful of Tony Awards.

By that point, Rachel Tucker (37) had al­ready ac­cepted the role of Bev­erly Bass — the only fe­male pi­lot who was di­verted — for the mu­si­cal’s in­ter­na­tional run, and her first thought when she saw the orig­i­nal ver­sion was, ‘Phew, thank God it’s re­ally bril­liant”.

Her re­lief was un­der­stand­able. She had been burned by fickle Broad­way au­di­ences be­fore. De­spite her fine star­ring turn in Sting’s mu­si­cal The Last Ship, the pro­duc­tion closed after less than a year, in 2015. She knew not to take for granted the magic alchemy of a big hit.

“The pub­lic are very dif­fi­cult to pre­dict in terms of what they will re­ally like,” she ex­plains be­tween mouth­fuls of lunch (a sen­si­ble salad).

“There is no rhyme or rea­son. There has got to be a mix­ture of things.

“If peo­ple re­ally knew the an­swer to it, they would never have to work again in their lives.

“With this show, it was fan­tas­tic tim­ing, in terms of what the world was go­ing through at the time.

“Peo­ple needed a real dose of hu­man­ity, see­ing peo­ple de­picted as hon­est and giv­ing, rather than it be­ing all about me, me, me.”

Tucker’s warmth and hu­man­ity is part of what has made her one of the most pop­u­lar and re­lat­able stars in a field where soar­ing voices feel 10 a penny.

This unas­sum­ing Belfast woman’s fame may still be fairly low-key in some places, but to a cer­tain co­hort of theatre fans, she is bona fide West End roy­alty.

Her belt­ing vo­cals, full of in­stinc­tual growls and riffs, and al­most pal­pa­ble stage presin ence, helped her make the role of Elphaba in Wicked more her own than any other per­former be­fore her. She’s won praise (and some crit­i­cism) from An­drew Lloyd Web­ber, been hugged by Meryl Streep and sung with Sting, yet there is no diva hau­teur about her: she seems as com­fort­able in her own skin as she was in Elphaba’s green epi­der­mis. That hum­ble down-to-earth man­ner might be a re­sult of grow­ing up in north Belfast in a Catholic fam­ily where she was the youngest of five chil­dren. Her de­scrip­tions of her child­hood sound, you can’t help think­ing, like the mak­ings of a mu­si­cal based around the Trou­bles. “We had the Army with ri­fles in our gar­den,” she re­calls. “It was nor­mal to us to see that. I’d walk down to them with my friend and she’d say to the sol­dier (adopts gut­tural lilt), ‘She can sing, do you want to hear her sing?’ And so I used to sing to them. The sol­diers had English ac­cents, which sounded so alien to me. I re­mem­ber my mum and dad switch­ing the news on each night to hear if some­one they knew had died, but I gen­uinely would say it was a happy child­hood.” Her fa­ther, Tommy, was a stal­wart of the city’s cabaret scene, and when Rachel was a child, he would bring her to work­ing men’s clubs, where she would all but stop the show with her preter­nat­u­rally pow­er­ful vo­cals. “I re­mem­ber he brought me to a dock­ers’ club to sing with him when I was nine and that was it — I had the taste for it then,” she re­calls. “I had a huge voice for a nine-yearold and I was paid for it, which was amaz­ing to me. My dad didn’t care if you were sick or not feel­ing up to it, if you were booked for it, you went on, so when my mates were out drink­ing at 14 or 15, I was re­hears­ing and per­form­ing. I was a bit dif­fer­ent, but I en­joyed that as well. I never have had a re­bel­lious phase.” She stud­ied per­form­ing arts in Gal­way, but when she was 18 she won a star­ring role in Rent at the Olympia in Dublin. “I loved be­ing Dublin... just be­ing away from my par­ents with­out them wor­ry­ing too much and be­ing able to drink,” she re­calls.

“The city was start­ing to boom then, with loads of in­de­pen­dent shops and lovely cafes. I thought I knew ev­ery­thing.”

After that she was ac­cepted to the Royal Academy Of Mu­sic in Lon­don to do a post-grad­u­ate de­gree, which she hoped would rid her of the feel­ing that she was wing­ing it.

“There was al­ways a lit­tle voice in the back of my head, say­ing that I hadn’t re­ally earned it,” she says.

Her first real stab at na­tional fame came in 2008 in An­drew Lloyd-Web­ber’s TV show I’ll Do Any­thing, which saw him search­ing for an up-and-com­ing tal­ent to play Nancy in his pro­duc­tion of the mu­si­cal Oliver!

Rachel was ini­tially very wary of tak­ing part in what was, in the end, a re­al­ity show, but she felt that suc­cess on it might get her no­ticed for big West End roles.

“The pro­duc­ers have agen­das... of course, they want you to cry and so on,” she re­calls. “I tried to dodge the cam­eras any time I could, but I was just try­ing to pro­tect my­self.

“An­drew Lloyd Web­ber was great. It was in­tim­i­dat­ing and, to be hon­est, I don’t think he loved my style. I think I was a bit brash for him. I never got the feel­ing he’d pick me.

“At the time, it was heart-break­ing. I cried a lot. I be­lieve the panel had an agenda, and I don’t be­lieve that when (pan­el­list and Dame Edna her­self ) Barry Humphries went for me that he nec­es­sar­ily be­lieved ev­ery­thing he said. It was a shock though. Up un­til then all I had was glory and peo­ple telling me how good I was (Humphries opined that Rachel wouldn’t be a per­fect Nancy but would be a good un­der­study).

Rachel’s stage ca­reer con­tin­ued to go from strength to strength after that, how­ever, and her per­sonal life im­proved too. ‘Show­mance’, she con­cedes, is a cliche in the per­form­ing arts and, any­way, de­cid­edly iffy in this era of #MeToo and so on.

But at the same time, she was get­ting to the point in life, she says, where “my mother and sis­ter thought I was gay” and she her­self was hop­ing to meet some­one spe­cial.

When she met Guy Re­tal­lack — he di­rected her in the mu­si­cal Tommy — sparks flew al­most im­me­di­ately.

“Yeah, it was a bit like a cast­ing couch

When my mates were out drink­ing at14or15,Iwas out per­form­ing

sit­u­a­tion,” she laughs. “No, it was the wine after. I to­tally felt the con­nec­tion. I think it was me who made the first move. I think I had to be­cause, I mean, he was the di­rec­tor. It took months to hap­pen and we were kind of sneak­ing around.

“We didn’t want any­one to think ‘di­rec­tor sleep­ing with ac­tor’ or what­ever. It was ter­ri­bly cliched.

“Guy is a bit older than me, like 17 years older, and mum was like, ‘Oooh is he not too old? And he’s English!’ It was like you could be any­thing but English — we joked about that — she didn’t care at all about that.”

They were mar­ried in 2009 and in 2013 Rachel gave birth to their son, Ben. “I had a very easy preg­nancy and my voice felt stronger,” she re­calls. “Maybe it was the hor­mones. My only is­sue was bend­ing down to pick the broom up in Wicked — I had to bend side­ways.”

Un­be­known to Rachel dur­ing her preg­nancy, her mother, Kath­leen, had be­come deathly ill. “She had got breast can­cer and had her lymph nodes re­moved,” she re­calls. “We thought things had im­proved, but it came back. She didn’t tell me and my sis­ter how se­vere it was then be­cause we were preg­nant. My be­lief is that they told her six or seven months and she told us six or seven years.”

In the end, Kath­leen would die three days after Rachel and her sis­ter had chris­tened their new ba­bies. “It was more of a shock when she did die but, in a way, I’m also thank­ful that it was quick be­cause by that point she was in so much pain.”

While she had Ben to fo­cus on, she felt bad for her fa­ther. “He had lost his part­ner in crime. They were re­ally bril­liant mates and what is cruel is that the loss seems to get even worse with time,” Rachel ex­plains. “He says he’s fine, but I don’t think he is. He has good days and bad days.”

Of her own grief, she adds: “Mum would al­ways say, ‘If I think you are cry­ing over my grave, I will come back and haunt you’. She’d have hated the idea that we couldn’t go back to work be­cause we were griev­ing, so in a way we were all a bit like, ‘Right, let’s just get on with things’.”

And, in fact, her life was about to change again, with Sting tak­ing a shine to her at an au­di­tion for his new, slightly au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, mu­si­cal. She won the star­ring role and very quickly she, Guy, baby Ben and Bar­ney the dog were be­ing spir­ited to Man­hat­tan, where they had an apart­ment right in the mid­dle of ev­ery­thing in Times Square.

“They set ev­ery­thing up for us — we were liv­ing on ac­tual Broad­way, above the M&M store,” she re­calls. “Ben was only seven months old. I had sung an old Joni Mitchell song for Sting in au­di­tions and he loved it.

“The whole pro­duc­tion was a great ad­ven­ture. One night the press peo­ple asked me if I wanted to meet Meryl Streep. She came back­stage and was like, ‘You! You were like a gazelle across that stage!” When she said that, I thought, ‘Okay, now I can die happy.

“Tom Hanks came, Steven Spiel­berg came to see the show twice and Har­vey Kei­tel was also in the au­di­ence one night too.” How­ever, the celebrity fol­low­ing, and even a late draft of Sting him­self into the show, didn’t save it. Even though he had once given her a foot mas­sage while she was read­ing a script, Sting and Rachel didn’t stay in touch after the show closed. “A show is like a bub­ble,” she ex­plains. “You’re best friends just for the du­ra­tion of it.” But, as with Lloyd Web­ber’s re­al­ity show, suc­cess seemed to spring out of an ap­par­ent set­back. Her cast­ing in Come From Away rep­re­sents a never-say­die pos­i­tiv­ity which has been there all through her sto­ried ca­reer. “My mum used to have a say­ing,” she tells me as we get ready to leave. ‘What’s for you won’t go by you’ — and I re­ally like that. An­other one she had was, ‘Jump and a net will ap­pear’. I think those are words I re­ally carry with me.” And she lifts up an arm to show me. “They’ll be my first tat­too.” Rachel Tucker ap­pears in Come From Away at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin from De­cem­ber 6 to Jan­uary 19 2019. Tick­ets are avail­able from abbeythe­atre.ie. Come From Away will trans­fer to Lon­don’s West End on Jan­uary 30, 2019.

CON­NEC­TION: Rachel with hus­band Guy on her wed­ding day in Belfast and (be­low) on the red car­pet

SUC­CESS STORY: Rachel with hus­band Guy and son Ben, singing on stage and as witch Elphaba in Wicked. Be­low, as Nancy in I’d Do Any­thing

DREAM DAY: Rachel with dad Tommy at her wed­ding

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