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Richard Tyler On Theatre, Buckinghamshire And Fighting Cancer

From dazzling us in the West End to tapping into the way we think, Richard Tyler has had an eclectic career – but the latest chapter sees him facing his biggest challenge yet, writes Katie Traxton

In 2017, I first met Buckinghamshire-born behavioural psychologist Richard Tyler. Knowing he was a former star of the West End, who’d held roles such as Marius in Les Mis and for five years played Raoul in the Phantom of the Opera, I had to calm my desire to ask him endless questions about his life and learning. As over time I’ve had the privilege to work with him and come to call him a friend, I’ve discovered one of the most fascinating and kindest people I’ve ever met.

In December 2021, at only 49 years of age, Tyler was diagnosed with an aggressive Stage IV cancer which, if left untreated, would give him only a few more months to live. His response was as remarkable as always. While undergoing multiple rounds of rapid chemotherapy, he and his family decided to create a foundation for others suffering similar fates, but without the support network Tyler has.

We could all learn from his story and wisdom, yet he so often spends his time supporting people on their own journeys, listening, seeing and seeking to understand without judgement that his own history remains masked – but now was the time to tell his story.

Richard Laughing
Richard has faced up to his situation with good humour and thinking of others before himself

Infinity and beyond

“When I was a young boy, I used to go to the top of Coombe Hill in the Chilterns and fly a kite there with my dad. We’d walk through the woods and we’d get to the top of the hill and hope there was enough wind for the kite to take off. I remember standing with such an expanse of space around me, able to enjoy the room and spaciousness. It felt like anything was possible because I could see right to the horizon.

“I enjoyed growing up in Buckinghamshire and still have a lot of love for it, but I also had a yearning within me to experience the wider world. When I found the theatre and when I found London, they provided a strong life force pulling me. I moved on, but always with that sense of the support and inspiration of my home county.”

The Greatest Show

“When I was about nine, my mum took me to the theatre to see Barnum the musical with Michael Crawford. It was absolutely breath-taking. It filled my heart with joy and wonder, I absolutely adored it. I remember saying to my mum, “Who will take over from Michael Crawford when this show finishes?” She said, “Oh it won’t keep running then,” to which I replied “But that’s a terrible thing, I want my children to see it one day. In that case I’ll have to do it!”

“That was back in the days of the Yellow Pages and I went home, found a local drama school and rang them up. Soon I started elocution lessons and that was it. I got a small part in the school play, not the part I wanted – I was really miffed – but that was the moment it began. Sometimes in life you get an overwhelming sense of “that’s it, I’ve got to do it”. I felt that about performing in the theatre, because theatre is such an incredibly joyous, life-changing thing. I wanted to bring that joy to others.”

Richard As Raoul In Phantom
Richard as Raoul in Phantom of the Opera

La Vie Bohème

“Suggesting I wouldn’t go to work in the West End was like someone arguing that the moon and the sun weren’t in the sky or that gravity doesn’t exist. I had a child-like inner knowing that it was going to happen. As a teenager, I had a small circle of friends, I spent my weekends doing amateur theatre, singing lessons, even galas in London. I dedicated my life to the theatre. I’m fortunate that I had massive support from my mum and dad. I got my first professional job at 17 in a pantomime at the Theatre Royal Windsor and managed to get my Equity card before I went to drama school, so everything lined up. It felt like the universe was very kind to me. There were things that didn’t go well, but generally my path was quite straight forward compared to a lot of people in that industry.

“I can still remember my first night of Les Mis in London. The first time that overture kicks in with ‘bom, bom’ it was incredible. My entire body shook, it was wonderful. I wasn’t playing Marius at that point, I was in the ensemble and it was my first West End gig, a year and a half out of drama school, so for me, hearing that was a symbol of having arrived. In many ways every moment I was performing was my favourite moment. My very last performance before retiring was with the Phantom company. It was very moving, very defining, I wanted to savour every moment of it and at the same time felt a relief that it was done.”

The next act

“I used to tell people that I left the theatre, because I needed to try something different. The reality was that I was completely burnt out, I was a shadow of myself. I’d become disenchanted with the business and fallen out of love with it. I felt very upset about that, but every day had become the hardest day. I was a perfectionist, I was utterly immersed in getting it right, being good enough. My love of theatre had always been about being present and connecting with every member of the audience, but by the end all I could think about was me. Did I get that note right? Was I good enough? I’d be consumed by it all night; I wouldn’t sleep. It was very unhealthy.

“Almost like the no-brainer that I’d work in theatre, it was a no-brainer that I’d leave. I had no idea what I was going to do and I didn’t have a care in the world about that. I went for all kinds of jobs; management jobs in stores, floor tiling sales, I was curious. Finally, I chose a job as a coach at a consultancy called Q Learning in Henley-on-Thames. It gave me the same joy I found in the theatre; the opportunity to connect with people, to understand stories that they are living, finding adaptation within those stories and walking home with them.”  

Tyler Family
The Tyler family

Feeling the earth move

“Getting my cancer diagnosis wasn’t the most awful moment of my life. The most awful moment was attempting to tell Mia, my only child, that her dad has Stage 4 cancer and without treatment I’d only have another few months. From September 2021, I’d had some symptoms, been to see various doctors, been prescribed medication that had temporarily alleviated symptoms, only for them to return and received a number of referrals to specialists. On 6 December, I heard from my oncologist that they’d got my biopsy results and that they wanted me to go in that night or the next morning. Then I knew.

“Up to that point I knew there was something not quite right, but I wasn’t expecting to be lying on the bed and hear the consultant say I had a very aggressive Stage IV b mantel cell lymphoma which is treatable, but notoriously hard to get rid of and that without treatment I’d have a few months. I stopped listening after that. I was there another three hours, but I couldn’t take any more in. I was heartbroken. My entire world crumbled away. I didn’t know how I was going to cope. It was a life-changing day. My wife and I decided we wanted to tell Mia and her mother the next day. It’s seven weeks ago today and there are still no words.

“We were offered a revolutionary drug that would increase my chances of full remission by 15%, but it was going to cost us £40,000. We didn’t have £40,000 sitting in a bank so my wife set up a GoFundMe to contribute to it. Amazingly, we hit the full target in less than a week. More than the money though, was the outpouring of love from people who we did know and who we didn’t know offering to support us in any way they could, to cook food, even to be bone marrow donors.

“We realised we were going to go over £40,000 and I was struck in that moment by how fortunate I was. I had cancer, but I had so much support. Around me, so many families are going through it in isolation, some having to take on night jobs, potentially travelling across a city to have chemo. I couldn’t sit back and watch that, so we quickly decided to set up a foundation where we could lift some of that burden by giving money to UK families where one member had been diagnosed with a blood cancer.

“We called it the Willow Tree Foundation, because the willow tree is symbolic of withstanding the harshest conditions. It bends and flexes as it needs to. That’s what we want to do with our cancer journey and in life. I can’t change the weather, but I can adapt to it. Through the foundation we can stand shoulder-to-shoulder and heart-to-heart with others on a unique, but similar path. Standing ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ has a very practical quality, helping with money and resources, being strong and present and sharing the burden, while ‘heart-to-heart’ represents sharing some of the love that we have with others through kindness and compassion.”

If you would like to learn more about the Willow Tree Foundation or nominate someone for support please visit willowtreefoundation.org; to donate please go to gofund.me/26c2f49c

Written by Katie Traxton, founder of Good Vibes Only Talent, goodvibesonlytalent.com, Instagram: @goodvibesonlytalent

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