Not many actresses take an eight-year career break to join the police – but Tonicha Lawrence likes to do things a bit differently.
By the age of 19, she was already a veteran of soap acting, having starred as Linda Glover/Fowler in Emmerdale for three years, so she quit the series and returned to theatre roles. Five years later, and with two young children to look after, Tonicha turned her back on acting and applied to work for Yorkshire Police – where she would work as a bobby on the beat for two years before spending the next six specialising in robbery, drugs and firearms.
The Jersey-born actress, who moved back to Jersey last year to join forces with her sister, Pippa Adams, who runs local youth acting company Drama Lab, says that she likes to push herself by trying new things.
‘I’m not somebody who can sit there and do nothing,’ she says.
‘I’ve always been that way. If I decide I want to try something new, I give it my all, whether it’s acting or being a police officer.’
Tonicha (40) will be heading up Screen Lab, a subsidiary to Drama Lab, where she will be teaching students about all aspects of the television and film industry. The new class launches on Monday 19 February, but nearly all the spaces have already been filled. Tonicha is setting the bar high for her young charges and hopes that Screen Lab will be the springboard for many of their careers.
‘I still have my own drama school in the UK, Tonicha Lawrence Academy, but I didn’t want to come over here and be my sister’s rival, so it made sense to do something together,’ she says.
‘My job is to make them feel so comfortable in front of the camera that when they go to an audition, it doesn’t bother them. We have loads of contacts – directors and casting agents – and they will be coming over to Jersey for collaborations.
‘It’s a two-hour class and it’s for children aged nine and above. We will be looking to do another class soon.’
Tonicha has one son, Lorcan Alexander (18), and two daughters, Sydney Wade (15), and Ava (11) – and the older two have inherited her love of performing.
Lorcan is a dance teacher at TLA and Sydney, who is at Beaulieu, is an actress who has starred in several TV programmes, as well as her first feature film, I Kill Giants, which is out in March this year.
‘Lorcan is trained in the theatre but he’s an incredible dancer and he is the head of dance at my school in the UK – he’s great with the kids,’ Tonicha says.
‘I’m dragging him back to Jersey for a few years because I’m missing him and it will be good for him to live in Jersey.
‘Ava is really talented with singing and acting, but she wants to be an illustrator and author – so at least one of my children will have a “normal” job! She finds being on set so boring – it’s not for her.’
Tonicha was involved in theatre during her early years in Jersey, taking part in dance shows and plays. Her family left the Island when she was 11, and after a short stint in Portugal, they relocated to Yorkshire. She joined a drama school and when she was 16 she was encouraged to attend an audition for a well-known soap opera.
‘Nobody watched Emmerdale then – it was all about Top of the Pops – so I went along thinking, “yeah, okay”, but then I got lucky and landed the part.
‘Soon after, they had a huge revamp of the programme and it went to three nights a week, so it was a great time to to be there. I had to pretty much give up my GCSE’s to be on the show, but it was worth it.
‘I was thrown into this amazing world and I did three and a half years before handing in my notice. I was concerned that doing any longer meant I would only ever be in soaps. I also wanted to get back to theatre because I was worried I would lose my stage confidence. I wanted to be a jobbing actor, so I did some touring working for different companies for a few years, including being in the original cast of Seasons in the Sun by John Godber.’
Tonicha took some time out when Lorcan was born, taking a step back from her career, and, in 2001, a friend mentioned that the Yorkshire police were hiring.
‘I just thought “I could do that”,’ she says.
‘It seemed like something to do while the kids were growing up and I’d go back into acting after. It seemed exciting and I had this feeling that I wanted to help and make a mark, do something positive. I couldn’t believe it when I got in.’
Working as a police officer on the lively streets of Leeds was a sharp learning curve for Tonicha, who comes from what she describes as a ‘cosseted’ background.
‘I’ve seen everything now,’ she says. ‘I’ve had knives pulled on me, been involved in fights in the street, but it makes you realise that life is really tough for some people out there. Seeing people dependent on drugs or suffering domestic violence was an eye-opener.
‘I was really drawn to investigating robbery, for some reason, and then I became a field intelligence officer for the firearms and drugs team.
‘I really enjoyed the job, but eventually, after eight years, I felt a pull back to acting, where my heart still was.’
Tonicha had set up her drama company while working for the police so leaving the force meant that she could could spend more time with her pupils, as well as launching a talent agency representing actors of all ages.
She will also be launching a talent agency at Drama Lab, with the aim of launching youngsters’ careers in the UK.
‘Being an agent with children is very different to [representing] adults – you’re not allowed to be too aggressive and they don’t really want you to “push” too much,’ she said.
‘It’s all very organic and there is lots of protocol, such as getting permission from the school.’
There is an energy and infectious enthusiasm in Tonicha’s manner when she’s speaking. It is easy to imagine her as a tenacious police officer, throwing herself into complicated cases and working tirelessly to help victims of crime. You can also imagine that parents would be happy to entrust their children’s acting futures to her. Indeed, one of Drama Lab’s young stars is currently auditioning for the lead role in the West End production of Matilda – something that came about through Tonicha’s connections in the industry.
‘The minute I walked into Pippa’s class I spotted this girl and so I got in touch with the casting director of Matilda and got her up for an audition,’ she says.
‘It’s brilliant to be able to offer those connections to children in Jersey and if people want to do it as a profession, we are able to provide opportunities. There is so much talent here that is untapped, but they often have to wait until they are adults to get experience on set. There are so many “triple threats” (performers who can sing, dance and act) and that is the way the industry is going. Actors need to be able to move, or sing.’
Tonicha and Sydney share a feature on their CVs that must be fairly rare in the industry – a mother and daughter reprising their family roles on screen.
It was an experience that Tonicha initially resisted, but she is glad she eventually relented.
‘Sydney was doing a CBBC series called Wolfblood and she was working with an amazing director, Jermain Julien, and he was going to Casualty next,’ she says.
‘She told him to think of her if a child’s part came up and lo and behold it did – two months later she auditioned successfully for Connie Sims.’
Tonicha visited her on set and the producer mentioned that they were looking to cast the mother of Sydney’s character, Steph Sims, before asking if Tonicha would consider it.
‘I said “no way – I’m not working with Sydney!” says Tonicha.
‘There’s no way in a million years, but thank you. But they encouraged me to do a self-tape, which they liked, and they cast me as Steph, who was a horrible character. Then they wanted to take her into Holby City because she was so vicious. And now she’s in prison...’
Mother and daughter kept a professional distance on set, with both having separate dressing rooms and making sure not to spend too much time together after the director said ‘cut’.
‘It’s really nice to have done it,’ says Tonicha.
‘I mean, how many people get to act with their daughter? They have left the character open, so if they need Connie tortured any more then can bring her back! I was supposed to die but they changed their minds at the last minute.’
While she is aware that there are many talented youngsters in Jersey, there is an absence of opportunities to appear on screen – a vital skill that Tonicha is confident she can impart. Sydney will also be joining her as a teaching assistant, offering advice on everything from auditions to understanding different cameras.
‘Kids love being in front of the camera, but we need to teach them how to use YouTube and Instagram responsibly,’ she says.
‘They need to be aware that one comment can ruin you, just like that.
‘Sometimes when the camera goes on, people just shut down. We need to get them comfortable with the experience.
‘Sydney understands the camera much better than I do. She’s grown up with it – she was first on camera when she was three. Sydney knows the difference between 35 mm or 50 mm and how big her face will be in that shot, for example.
‘She’s also a master of auditions and will be able to offer some great advice.’
Returning to Jersey last year was the realisation of a 30-year desire to come home for Tonicha.
‘I’d been trying for so long to get back to the Island,’ she says.
‘But life gets in the way – marriage, children, work – and I finally decided it was time to move back. Yorkshire is beautiful, but I’m so passionate about Jersey and happy to be home. I had a really happy childhood here and I know I’ll be happy as an adult.’