With the amazing Rachel Tucker appearing again at the Penge’s lovely Bridge House Theatre on 30th September, it seemed fitting to publish a tribute by Jon Preston to this famous performer with local credentials.
Rachel Tucker is well known in Musical Theatre circles. However, I was ignorant of her track record and her talent when she and her husband Guy moved in across the road from us seven years ago. Indeed, I was curious and concerned in equal measure back then when I used to see this purposeful brunette looking decidedly green around the gills as she left her house in Penge, South London. She never looked well. It wasn’t until I saw the show Wicked some years later I finally understood her pallor to be the result of the green make-up she wore when playing the part of the most agreeable witch in the West End. She still holds the record as the longest serving Elphaba in London’s production of “Wicked”, having done the part for nigh-on three years in one stint. However, it wasn’t until we went as a family to see her in a one-woman show at the St James Theatre that I really got that she could sing. And she really can sing.
On a cold autumn evening one Sunday last year, an assortment of eclectic folk gathered to enjoy an evening with Rachel and her band. Organised as a fund-raiser for the local theatre where she and Guy are the Artistic Directors, the garden of the Bridge House Tavern, again in Penge, was bedecked with bunting, lights and pub bench tables. That most British of events, torrential rain, had lashed down for much of the day and when we as a family arrived just before 7pm, Guy and others were hastily taping tarpaulin covers to a series of gazebo-type struts. We’d opted for the standing tickets, with the hope we might perch somewhere. There was a full house, the temporary sheeting was offering some shelter from the showers and there was camaraderie in the air. We were braving the elements to enjoy what promised to be a special evening of song.
The band, comprising a pianist, a drummer and a bass player, were perched slightly precariously in front of the rear doors of the pub. They warmed us up briefly and then Rachel arrived through those back doors. It might hardly have been a glamorous entrance and yet somehow it was. I’ve seen Rachel perform a few times now. She lights up an auditorium when she appears and the pub garden of the Bridge House Tavern was no exception. She greeted the audience and apologised for the weather, thanking us for making it out on such a wet and windy evening. She then launched into a programme of show tunes and songs from her current album, ‘On the Road’. The evening was actually ‘Rachel and guests’. At regular intervals she welcomed up onstage various musicians. These included instrumentalists and singers who, under normal circumstances, may well not have made it to Penge in a month of Sundays. However, thanks to Rachel, make it they did and the level of musicianship was of the highest standard. There were some lovely duets, including one with the actress who had played opposite Rachel in ‘Wicked’ as Glynda, the Good Witch of the East. There was also another singer who belted it out with international sass. I can’t recall the names but I can hear their voices even now, writing almost a year later. In and amongst all this talent, one brave soul got up to sing a duet as a prize he’d won through a highest-bid auction. He did pretty well, with Rachel pitching it perfectly so as to support rather than outshine him.
And that, I think, is the attribute that shone out so clearly that evening. I am not of the West End, nor familiar with the ins and outs of showbiz folk. However, I would lay a dollar to a
dime that there are few with Rachel’s singing talent and professional profile who would brave the elements to support a pub theatre venture in the back-end of south London. Despite the wind whipping up at times and unceremoniously dumping gallons of water from the tarpaulins onto the gallant punters seated below, Rachel warmed us all with her infectious combination of humour and care. When her son Ben, a charmingly intelligent four-year-old, invaded the stage at several points during the evening, she managed that dual role of Mum and Main Act superbly well. With husband Guy hovering on standby, as ever, there was back-up should disaster strike. Between them all though, Rachel, Guy and Ben, gave us a private peek at family life on the road and for a short while they made us all feel part of that family.
There were plenty of great musical moments and, to finish, Rachel treated us to that showstopper from Wicked, ‘Defying Gravity’. It showcases her vocal range and transports those who have seen the show to a magical place where witches can and do fly. Here in Penge it was clearly what some of her die-hard fans had come to see. Sitting next to us was Rose from Canada. She had seen Wicked many and several times and was clearly a Fan. Rachel didn’t disappoint her. For me though, the highlight was another solo piece, an arrangement of ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’. As she sang this gentle version of the Elton John classic, I reflected that Rachel doesn’t mind sharing the spotlight but, inevitably, the spotlight does belong to her. She commands it without having to demand it. I know she is looking for a professional life beyond ‘Wicked’, the tale of the two witches from the Wizard of Oz. How smart to include this slightly melancholic version of an iconic song near the end of her set. I can’t speak for anyone else but I was transported from a wet pub garden in Penge to a place where all life was distilled to the purity of the musical voice. It was spellbinding.
I was moved by the evening and vowed to write it up at the time. However, life got in the way. I write now because I have just received a flyer telling me that Rachel is due back to the Bridge House Tavern in Penge on the evening of Sunday 30th September. I doubt she’ll be able to cast any spells in regard to the weather but I know she’ll offer another enchanting evening. I urge you to take your courage in both hands, dress for rain just in case and venture to deepest south London. She’ll not disappoint you.