It’s 2011 and feisty, mixed race, East ender Chelsea’s future is bright. She has a new man and there’s a new progressive Prime Minister to light the days ahead. The media can stick their obsession with the identity of Prince Albert – the secret royal who’s been in hiding for 20 years. However, Bertie has something big to tell Chelsea. He’s down on one knee, but it’s not a ring he has in store… it’s a crown. And Chelsea will soon discover that travelling from Barking to Buckingham Palace takes more than a topped-up Oyster Card… Tori Allen-Martin plays the soon-to-be-princess in H.R. Haitch, a comedy musical set in the Dog & Duck, writes Michael Holland.
As a young girl growing up in Kingston (Surrey, not Jamaica), Tori was drawn towards women like herself: ‘when I first saw Rent and saw MiMi, I thought hang on, she’s brown too! I felt like maybe acting was something I could actually do. Until then it’d been a fantasy but it was the first time I thought that perhaps there were parts I could actually play. I’d wanted to be a pop star since I was 11 and first saw Scary Spice… It’s impossible to dream as big as you deserve to as a child if you don’t see people who represent you doing it already – That’s why I’m so behind better representation of diversity within the industry.’
Not having a dad around meant it was Mum that made Tori’s dream become a reality. She doesn’t talk to her father these days but vividly recalls how his lack of support spurred her on: ‘I was determined to make something of myself and to not let the feelings of rejection that he taught me at an early age win, the bonus is hoping that eventually I can repay my mum and look after her the way she deserves to have been taken care of for all these years.’
That determination meant Tori quickly realised that drama school was not going to be for her so set out to learn ‘on the job’. She says, ‘I really am the poster girl for just getting out there and doing it – get involved – create your own work- take risks. It felt impossible at times – like I was banging my head against a thousand brick walls, screaming at the top of my lungs on mute… Every job I do I’m learning – I always try and learn at least one thing from every new person I meet on a job. I make that my goal.’ Hardly stopping for breath she was off again. ‘Not only do you better yourself as a performer but you learn things you never thought you would, and you stay interested and alert. I don’t think drama school is for everyone – I think it would’ve broken me. I think I had to learn in my own way, at my own pace, in my own time. Life lessons have been just as important as performance skills. I had to find out who I was first before I could bare my soul on a stage. Even up until a couple of years ago I’d worry what I looked like or what people might think, but I’ve grown up and been dealt some rough cards and some great ones – and now I realise you’ve just got to do you – it’s the only thing no-one else can beat you at. Now I’m kind of fearless on stage. But life had to teach me that.’
Tori was in full flow and I was impressed. Very impressed. I asked about her character Chelsea in H. R. Aitch: ‘It’s a lead role actually written for a mixed race girl – I fell in love with Chelsea instantly and I was desperate to play her. Then I got the gig and heard the songs and I was beside myself! I really got lucky. It’s a brilliant piece and I’m so happy to be involved. It’s refreshing and fun and it’s complete escapism – like a laugh out loud, silly, sweet comedy – but it manages to be a true reflection of the times we live in too.’
But Tori was away with Chelsea now: ‘She loves a selfie or #Chelfie, she’s glam as anything but she’s actually a banging chef and certainly has her head screwed on. She’s opinionated and blunt and she takes no prisoners but she has a heart of gold and puts everyone else first. She’s a real twenty first century heroine and a complete contradiction and that’s the beauty of her. You think you’ve got her down and then she surprises you…She’s super 3D. Beautifully flawed. A millennial mistress of her own destiny. I love her.’
Phew! I needed to stop for air too…Tori is excited about Harry and Meghan’s wedding making this play so much more current: ‘For a start it looks like modern times, which is depressingly rare in musical theatre! And obviously the fact that a person of mixed heritage actually is marrying into the royal family makes it super relevant! We first workshopped this show three years ago, so it’s almost like the writers predicted it! It seemed the perfect time to stage the show properly in light of the real royal wedding.’
The actor is currently filming Pure for Channel 4, plus something for ITV, and working on something she has written herself. ‘It’s been a struggle till now,’ she declares, ‘so I keep pinching myself at what a wonderful start I’ve had to the year. I’m very, very grateful.’
Tori says ‘Super’ a lot: ‘super close, super 3D, super relevant, super excited and super politically aware. And so she should – She’s a super woman.
H. R. Haitch can be seen at The Union Theatre, 204 Union Street, SE1 0LX from 9th May – June 2nd. Times: Tuesday – Sunday 7.30pm; sun matinees 2.30pm. Admission: £22.50, £15 concs. Phone: 0207 261 9876.