CAT SIMMONS was still at school when she last wowed Edinburgh audiences. Then, she was playing Charlotte in the National Youth Music Theatre’s production of Oliver!
“That was in 1994, at the George Square Theatre,” she recalls, “and I have really fun memories of that time. Memories which are still quite vivid because really, that was where I learnt some of my training.”
The actress continues, “We rehearsed the show just outside London and then came to Edinburgh, so it was very much prpearing me for what I do now as a professional.”
A one time star of The Bill (Simmons played DC Kezia Walker from 2006 to 2009) the actress also sang at the Tattoo that year, the whole experience helping cement her determination to work in theatre.
“I had a tough time at school and was teased a lot because I had so many hobbies,” she reveals. “I had more life experience than the other kids and they were threatened by that. So at 16 I made a decision not to continue my academic education and instead I got a part-time job and went to a part-time theatre school, much to my parents’ distaste. Still, they supported me and by the time I was 17, I was working.”
Simmons, who also starred as Scarlett Anderson in Family Affairs, has kept busy ever since, including a season at the Playhouse as Mary Magdalene in Gale Edwards’ Jesus Christ Superstar, and a return to the Fringe in 2009 with the Young Vic’s production of the Ché Walker and Arthur Darvil musical, Been So Long.
This week, however, it’s Oliver! that once more brings her to the Capital. Only now she is Nancy, playing opposite Brian Conley’s Fagin in Cameron Mackintosh’s new touring production, which runs until June 23. It’s her dream role.
“I’ve always loved musicals and I remember as a little girl making this wish-list - Nancy was on there,” she says.
It is the nobility of the character that attracts Simmons to the role, although when she first saw the film at the age of ten it was “probably because I liked the dresses,” she laughs.
“What I have discovered since is that the role is a lot darker than I thought. Nancy is a prostitute and has probably been raped and who knows what else, yet she is still the life of the party.
“She is also Bill Sikes’ pacifier and he needs her. She is a lot stronger than I imagined her to be and I’m really surprised by the relationship she, Bill and Fagin have. They keep each other in place. If one wavers the others pull them back.
“There’s so much grooming going on. Fagin is constantly grooming the boys. When Nancy comes in, even though she has been groomed by Fagin, she too is grooming them, although in a different way, and she is also grooming Bette - prostitution is not a walk in the park.”
Despite the bleakness of the tale, which goes without saying is based on Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the musical remains life-affirming, thanks in no small way to the scale of its ensemble numbers.
“Consider Yourself literally invites you in, that’s why it’s my favourite. It’s genius,” says Simmons.
“Even though Nancy is this oppressed, abused woman, when she meets this young boy it turns her life around. It allows her to face her greatest fear, which is when the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.
“It’s such a personal story that it touches your heart.
“Dickens wrote about the working classes and about people’s struggles. That is something we can still relate to now and in Oliver! there really is a story for everybody.”
Oliver! Edinburgh Playhouse, Greenside Place, until June 23, various times, £18.50-£50.50, www.atgtickets.com/edinburgh