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BWW Interview: Cat Simmons On OLIVER!

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Between shows on a Wednesday evening and remarkably unflustered by emergency rehearsals right up until the half hour call, BWW:UK caught up with the delightful and bubbly Cat Simmons to discuss her role as Nancy in Oliver! at the Curve Theatre in Leicester.

Are you enjoying your time in Leicester and more specifically working at the Curve?

I am absolutely loving it. I'd heard about the Curve and its set-up; how there isn't a backstage or stage door. I love it because it's an immersive experience for the audience. At the end of the show, the walls go up and people can see backstage. You have to wander through the foyer to get back to your dressing room after the show has finished and it's really nice for people to see you and appreciate what you have done. Theatre should be an experience for everyone and they should be able to witness both sides of the stage; this space offers that. There's so much going on here as well; on a Monday evening, they have a children's gospel choir that rehearse on one of the mezzanine levels and their voices resonate through the theatre. I always warm up walking down the corridor and I forget that the entire audience can hear me!


You are taking on the iconic role of Nancy again, after playing her on the UK tour a few years ago. How does it feel revisiting the character again?

When I was ten years old, I wrote a list and Nancy was on there as someone I wanted to play. Also when I was fourteen, I was in a production of Oliver! with the National Youth Music Theatre and I played Charlotte. I was a big fan of the film and it's almost like the songs form part of people's DNA as everyone knows them. Cameron (Mackintosh) is involved with this production as well but his first production I absolutely loved, from the dresses to the way it was staged. This time, what's wonderful is we have been able to recreate the roles with a different eye. The set is very wooden and there is something very human about it. It's also a very physical show; more so than last time I did it. Andrew Wright has done some brilliant choreography; they have had to take my dress in three times because we have gotten so fit! It's a real ensemble piece which is reflected in these big numbers; we're all in it together.


How do you ensure your characterisation is a unique take on Nancy whilst fulfilling prior expectations from the audience?

We discussed at length how we were going to present all of the characters and storytelling is so important with any part; the music being an extension of that. I remember when Stephen Brooker was teaching me 'As Long As He Needs Me' and the dramatisation through the music is so beautifully written. It's Lionel Bart's best work for sure. I have tried to make Nancy as vibrant, complex and interesting as possible. She's a woman who stands by her man and is the only person who can pacify Bill Sikes as she knows his background. She's a tough character which sadly leads to devastating consequences. It will probably go over the kids' heads but we all know how complex relationships are, what love does to you and the choices you make. With Nancy's cultural background, she was on the streets since she was six years old, has been a prostitute and has generally had a tough life. However, she's got her man and has incredible confidence. When she goes into a room, no one can touch her. It's from this that she finds the strength she needs to protect this young boy, Oliver.


Oliver Boot plays Bill Sikes who is a notoriously menacing and intimidating character. How is his characterisation of Bill?

It's one of my favourite audience reactions when the character Oliver slaps Bill Sikes as they can't believe what he has just done. He would have been beaten within an inch of his life had Nancy not created a diversion. Most of the reactions to Bill have been very sincere and genuine. Oliver (Boot) shows the complexity of the character and yes, he is terrifying! But he loves Nancy and there are so many evident things that have contributed to his explosive temper. We did a Q&A session the other day and one of the subjects that came up was Nancy's death. Paul Kerryson has been quite brave with the staging of this scene and Nancy gets murdered in front of everybody's eyes so it's very shocking. After Bill has killed Nancy, he actually asks her to get up, not realising what he has done. When it begins to sink in, he has no choice but to grab Oliver and make a run for it. Paul has been really great with the creative aspects and allows our imaginations to run wild with the characters a little bit.


It must be brilliant to reinvent a classic yet not stray too far from the original that so many people know and love.

It's Cameron's baby. He knows how this show works and there is a definite formula to it. We haven't strayed necessarily but read more between the lines with the utmost respect for the blueprint that already exists.


Peter Polycarpou, one of our most respected musical theatre actors, is playing Fagin in this production. Can you tell me about his take on the character and what he is like to work with?

Peter is a very generous actor. He is very detailed and likes to discuss things, finding reasons behind actions. His Fagin is very sinister yet very funny and likeable. I don't think I've seen a Fagin quite as sinister as Peter's! He is absolutely wonderful to work with and I was thrilled when I found out that he was going to be playing Fagin - I actually gave a little cheer as I've seen him in so much before. I completely respect him as an actor; he's such a talent. We are very fortunate to have him.


You are only performing in part of the Oliver! run. What are your plans for afterwards?

When I was asked to do it, I mentioned that I could not fulfil the whole run. I'm going on to perform in Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern at the Arcola by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who was the first living female playwright to have her show staged at the National Theatre. She's also just won a BAFTA and Oscar for co-writing Best Foreign Film, Ida. Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern is set in the 1700s and is about one of the last witch trials in England. I was doing the show before Oliver! and am returning to it afterwards. I am very fortunate that Cameron asked me to come onboard again but still allowed me to do this. Sometimes that doesn't happen but I think they should be completely flexible in these situations. I have heard how wonderful Laura (Pitt-Pulford) is who is taking over the role of Nancy from me and I know we will be completely different.


It is a testament to yourself as a performer that you have had such a varied career in TV, plays and musical theatre thus far.

They are all passions of mine. I am always learning and try to make my work as varied as possible as I think it improves you as an actor. I was filming before my last play so that project will be coming out in the New Year as well.

Cat Simmons is performing in Oliver! at the Curve until January 2 with the show continuing until 23 January 2016 with Laura Pitt-Pulford in the role. Simmons will then be performing in Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern at the Arcola Theatre from January 5 to 30 2016.


Photo credit: Pamela Raith


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