Leading Ladies: Rachel Tucker – 'I'll never lose my love of singing'

The award-winning former ”Wicked” star recently returned from making her Broadway debut in Sting’s ”The Last Ship”, and is about to play a dominatrix in an Ayckbourn farce

'Sweet soul' – Rachel Tucker at the St James Theatre
© Darren Bell
As stated in the title of her upcoming concert at the St James Theatre, Rachel Tucker is just back from Broadway.

She was over there to star in the premiere of Sting's musical The Last Ship, which began life as a concept album. Tucker played Meg, the estranged love of the central character Gideon, a performance described by Charles Isherwood in the New York Times as combining a "tough hide" with a "sweet soul".

I'm intrigued to know what her immediate reflections of the experience are. "It was a whirlwind of amazingness. It was incredible. My ultimate dream was Broadway and I kept thinking 'if I am dreaming please don't wake me up'."

She shared a stage with Sting himself when he joined the show towards the end of its run. "It was a stellar team, the crème de la crème, and I really had to step up to the mark. I kept thinking I would be found out."

That she wasn't will come as no surprise to those who've seen her on stage. After rising to prominence in 2008 casting show I'd Do Anything, in which she finished fourth (behind Samantha Barks, Jessie Buckley and winner Jodie Prenger), she went on to become a West End staple thanks to We Will Rock You and then Wicked.

But it could easily have backfired. She describes going on the BBC show as a "gamble", considering she was already a professional actress and risked damaging her reputation rather than enhancing it.

"I'd done a lot of work in touring theatre, and I decided to go on I'd Do Anything because I wasn't getting seen for West End shows. I remember watching Lee Mead win Any Dream Will Do the previous year and vowing that if something similar came up that was right for me, I would go for it – and Nancy was the ideal opportunity."

It was a decision that set her, and many of her fellow contestants, several of whom she remains friends with, on the path to leading lady status.

There must be something in the Tucker genes that is attracted to talent shows. Her father, Tommy, once came second on Opportunity Knocks. And as a teenager she appeared with her sister Margaret on Michael Barrymore's My King of Music.

It was her father's musical ability that fired her own talent early on. They formed a duo and performed in the clubs of Belfast. Singing staples such as "You Are My Sunshine", "Stupid Cupid" and "Rockin' Robin", they got noticed and a regular flow of bookings followed.

"That was where I learnt my trade, how to work an audience and how to listen to an audience," says Tucker. "It was an incredible background training."

This being Belfast in the late 80s and early 90s, The Troubles were an ever-present backdrop to an otherwise happy childhood. Tucker's family lived opposite a judge, who was a target for the IRA. "There were British soldiers squatting in our front garden, rifles aimed at the judge's house. So I used to go down and sing to them – it just seemed normal to me."

I ask if performing was an escape, but she's quick to point out that she had "nothing to escape from". But there's a steeliness to her that implies it wasn't talent alone that has got her where she is. In her own words it took "balls" and "guts" to get through nine gruelling weeks on I'd Do Anything, elements that were clearly in evidence early on. Not many children would sing to a soldier with a gun in his hands.

'Every time I went on that stage I knew what a big deal it was'

The role with which Tucker is most strongly associated is Elphaba, the green witch in Wicked who is demonised as the Wicked Witch of the West. She has played it over 1,000 times in total, and won a WhatsOnStage Award for Best Takeover in 2011.

She reveals that, prior to I'd Do Anything, she had a final audition for Wicked. But it was the same day that she had to go and see Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh for a final meeting about I'd Do Anything, so she had to cancel.

But she wasn't going to let Elphaba slip through her fingers. After all, as a teenager she "sobbed uncontrollably" after seeing Wicked on Broadway and "promised" her parents she would play the role one day.

Did she ever get bored of the role during her two and half year tenure? "Never. I got tired, we all do, and had a few off shows, but every time I went on that stage I knew what a big deal it was and I never undervalued it."

She finally removed the green make-up in 2012 to tackle an even bigger role – motherhood (she had a son in early 2013 with her husband, theatre director Guy Retallack). Does she find it harder to do stage work as a result? "I love being at home, spending time with Guy and Ben. I could sit at home quite easily all day, so I need to push myself, but I've never lost the love of singing and of the work."

© Darren Bell

With Guy, she launched The Bridge House Theatre above their local pub in Penge last year. It's clearly a project that enthuses her, and provides a welcome antidote to the intense glare of the West End and Broadway.

"It's crazily hard, and keeps us very busy, but I can very happily say that there are two productions that started there which are going on tours later this year – It's a Wonderful Life and Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story. So we're very, very proud."

Not bad going for a venue that is barely six months old. Their latest production is Tony's Last Tape, based on the diaries of Tony Benn, a co-production with Nottingham Playhouse timed to coincide with the upcoming election.

Ever-busy, she's also just started rehearsals for Alan Ayckbourn's Communicating Doors at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in which she plays a time-travelling dominatrix.

Tucker jokingly refers to the project as a "talkie" and says she "loves getting her teeth" into 'straight' theatre (in 2013 she appeared opposite Max Irons in Farragut North). "I want to be seen as a versatile actress, not just a singer."

The play is an uproarious farce, and Tucker's character gets involved in no end of bizarre scenarios. I tease that it may benefit from the 'Fifty Shades' effect. "Indeed! Get your whips at the ready," she laughs.

And as if that wasn't enough to be getting on with she also has her concert at the St James, Back from Broadway, to think about. The theme for the show, which is on Sunday (19 April), centres on the nomadic nature of the acting life. "It's about home, and how you have to make your home very quickly as an actor. I've got a tricolour of homes – Belfast, London and New York."

The concert will feature work that influenced Tucker during her time in the States, as well as some of the work that got her where she is today. She says that, after the Menier run, she'd love to take the show to Belfast, where she hasn't performed for a number of years. "Now that would be a real homecoming."

Rachel Tucker – Back from Broadway is at the St James Theatre on 19 April. Communicating Doors opens at the Menier Chocolate Factory on 7 May.