Now appearing in Chess at the London Coliseum, the performer and pop star tells Mark Shenton how the loss of her mother last year has driven her on and why theatre’s efforts to address diversity led her to embrace the industry
Alexandra Burke is a big believer in the power of positive energy. As she bustles into the Royal Retiring Room at the London Coliseum, in the middle of technical rehearsals for Chess, she says: “It’s got to the point where it feels tense backstage. So I’ve gone to everyone who will listen to me and said: ‘If we smash this tonight, guys, you’re going to feel amazing tomorrow.’ It’s important to spread some positivity.”
Positivity is not the same as confidence, however, which is a quality that’s proved more elusive for her. When she was approached to star in The Bodyguard, before its first West End run, she initially turned it down.
“I wasn’t mentally ready to take on a challenge like that – or vocally ready,” Burke reveals. “You have to sing 18 or 19 tracks and you hardly leave the stage. Before singing I Will Always Love You there’s a 14-second turnaround. There would be five people around to have to change me.”
Her mother, Melissa Bell, who was in the band Soul II Soul, died last summer. She had helped to foster her daughter’s initial ambitions to be a singer. “My mum used to buy The Stage all the time for auditions for me. That’s how I got to go on [BBC TV talent show] Star for a Night with Jane McDonald – I was 12, the youngest person ever to do it. If my mum [were alive and] knew you were interviewing me, she’d be here. It was the family newspaper, the one she’d say: ‘We have to buy it for Alex to become a pop star!’ ”
But after Broadway’s Heather Headley originated the lead role of Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard, and then Beverley Knight took over, Burke finally found the courage to face up to its challenges.
“I was living in New York and had just done a life-coaching course for 18 months, and that’s what made me say yes. And my mum told me: a) if I didn’t say yes now, I would never get this opportunity again and b) ‘I’m going to fly you back here and kick your backside and get you on stage.’ Okay, when mamma talks, that’s it. So I did it. And it was the best decision I could have made.”
Between the West End and subsequently taking it on the road, Burke was in The Bodyguard for two years. And it was where she met her fiance Josh Ginnelly, a stage manager still involved in the show’s international roll-out. “So the show changed my life – and to think I was going to turn it down.”
Burke immediately followed it with the tour of Sister Act for 15 months. “I was learning Sister Act while finishing The Bodyguard,” she says. “And my mum was very sick during Sister Act. I would commute home and spend the night with her in hospital before travelling back to do the show again.”
She reveals she contemplated quitting Sister Act as her mother, who suffered from diabetes, became increasingly unwell. “At the end of 2016, I said to her: ‘I need to spend more time with you, I think I should quit.’ And she said, ‘I didn’t raise a quitter.’ But I wasn’t quitting because I couldn’t do it, I was quitting because I wanted to see her. She replied, ‘I will not be held responsible for you letting your fans down. You get on that stage, you black bitch.’ ”
Her mother died, aged just 53, at the end of the tour. “She hung on literally to the last day. I made it back to be with her, a four-hour drive, and she died.” Even then, quitting was not an option, as Burke was scheduled to appear on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing immediately afterwards.
“I remember saying to myself: ‘How am I going to get through this?’ Her passing was a massive shock to the family, but all I can do is take on her strength. I have no excuse in my life to stop. Some people gave me so much shit for doing Strictly and not stopping but I have continued to work – shoot me down if it’s wrong, but that’s my coping mechanism. I have to keep busy mentally.”
What was your first job?
Singing in a pub in Enfield. I was paid £60 to do four 45-minute sets.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To help your voice, don’t give everything during the dress rehearsal – I learned the hard way. And you don’t need to try to impress those around you, you’ve already got the job. So work on your role, your character choices, and take it all in and then go for it.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My mum. Everything she accomplished in life was mind-blowing for me and she was the strongest woman I’ve ever known.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Prepare, prepare, prepare – and if you don’t, prepare to fail. Be off script, it shows you’ve made an effort. Effort gets you the job, complacency takes you back to where you were. And be professional. Arrive half an hour before your call so you can really zone out, take in what you need to do and capture the moment.
If you hadn’t been a singer and actor, what would you have been?
A lawyer. When I left school at 15, my mum said I needed a plan B. I said mine was to be a lawyer. She said, ‘How long do you need?’ I said five years. At 20 I signed my record deal.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I always pray before I go on. And I try not to look at the audience. They scare me.
Her mother’s death had a deep effect on Burke, but it also taught her an important lesson: “I do what I can to create happiness because you only get one life and get one shot at it; if you want to be happy, and see that endgame, be it. When it goes, it goes.”
She never takes anything for granted: “People can’t understand why I remain positive. If only they knew the half of what I’ve gone through, but I’d rather be positive than a miserable old cow. Where do you want to be? There’s no in-between here – you either stay positive, work hard and achieve what you want for your life, or be miserable, put out negativity and everything around you is a downer.”
Burke is unafraid to reveal her vulnerability: “People say I come across confidently – put a microphone in my hand and if I’m singing my own songs I’m fine – but I’ve turned down so much because of confidence. Anything out of my comfort zone is a scary world for me.”
Working with English National Opera was daunting, she admits. “I’ve never even been here before. I’ve never even seen a show here. And I never thought for a second I’d be able to play a part like this. When I got a call from my agent saying: ‘There’s a show called Chess and you should do it’, I said I’d need to speak to the director first. Why did they want little old me from Islington?”
Director Laurence Connor assured her that he wanted to celebrate having Burke in the company. The next step was getting the performance right. “Because I’m not a trained actor, I need to relate each and every character to a real person in my life and a real situation,” she says. “If I can’t do that, I won’t take the job. I can’t be false.”
She drew on her own family background for her role as Svetlana Sergievsky: “My character comes from a broken marriage, Michael Ball plays my husband, who leaves me with my child. It reminded me of when I was younger and my mum was a single parent and my dad was gone. I completely related to this situation from my mum’s perspective of what she went through. I thought of her and what she went through and burst into tears on stage two days ago and I couldn’t control it. To tap into those feelings as an actor can be really hard.”
• Get the acting lessons in.
• Do your research. Don’t rock up thinking you know it all, because you’ll never know it all. No matter your status, there’s always something more to learn. Luther Vandross had a vocal coach till the day he died.
• Always steam and stay away from alcohol, unless it’s Saturday night and you’ve just finished two shows. Also: hydration, hydration, hydration – always drink at least 1.5 litres of water before you sing. If you take care of health, everything else will follow.
The rewards justify it, she says. “Every day I experience a new feeling of gratitude. When we’re on stage, there’s a beautiful energy between all of us – such a sense of connection. And I’m a little bit in love with Laurence. He’s the first director I’ve worked with who sings himself, and I find myself watching him and thinking how he really loves this show. Everything about him is so loving and so calm. I adore him and I hardly know him.”
She’s also in awe of the orchestra, saying its members “bring a whole different level of magical feelings to the show; nothing is done on click track, all the voices you hear are live. People may not realise because the sound is so perfect”.
Then there are the fans, to whom she feels a personal sense of responsibility. During the arena tour of Strictly Come Dancing she was struck down by glandular fever – “I didn’t even know how to spell it, but I got it” – and the doctors signed her off. “But I didn’t tell anyone and did it. They’d sold tickets with my name. It may only have been two tickets for my dad and his mate, but I wasn’t going to miss it.”
She turns 30 this year; she’s come a long way since she saw her first West End show aged 17. “It was The Lion King, and I’ll never forget the bit where the actors come through the stalls and I saw loads of black people. I didn’t think I could do that, but I realised I could. Diversity is a massive thing in the theatre; theatre doesn’t see colour. And that’s where my home is now.”
Born: 1988, Islington, London
Training: “I had no training. I went to after-school clubs and practised street dancing. I did contemporary dance for GCSE and got an A and I got a B for music.”
• The Bodyguard, West End (2014) and then UK tour (to 2016)
• Sister Act, tour (2016/17)
• Chess, London Coliseum (2018)
Agent: Gavin Barker
Chess is at the London Coliseum until June 2