Shortly before lockdown, Jade Jones met Cat Simmons, one of the stars from the hit West End musical Come From Away. Photography: Victoria Harrison
It’s 4.30pm on a Thursday and I am standing at the stage door of The Phoenix Theatre in London’s West End where I’m greeted by Lancashire-born stage and screen star Cat Simmons, who has just finished her matinee show in the hit Tony and Laurence Olivier award winning musical, Come From Away.
Back in the days when we didn’t need to adhere to social distancing, she greets me with open arms before we walk to a nearby restaurant: “I’m starving!” Cat says as we sit down for a bite before she has to return for the evening performance, which I was lucky enough to see.”
“I feel most at home when I’m on stage,” Cat says as we both delve into a plate of rosemary fries, and I can see why. Cat’s desire and talent for performing began at a very young age, as she explains: “My dad was a singer and I would regularly accompany him to his shows, jumping on stage to perform along with the band.” It’s these fond memories that enhanced Cat’s childhood and made her the West End performer she is today.
Attending Pat Eakets School of Dance and Drama in Blackburn, Cat’s teacher gave her the support and attention she needed in dance as a young girl: “There have been a number of people who have believed in me along the way. Mrs Hughes, my tap teacher being one.”
As well as financial backing from local businesses, Cat’s mum and dad worked hard to help make her dreams a reality and little did they know what a success she would be.
As a child, Cat won parts in TV series Children’s Ward and Emmerdale before attending the Oldham Theatre Workshops where drama tutor David Johnson encouraged Cat’s raw ability, eventually leading her to perform in plays at the Oldham Colosseum.
Through talent and determination, Cat’s emerging career as a ‘triple threat’ – the stage term for someone who is able to act, sing and dance – began to snowball and at the age of 16 she attended the Phil Winston’s Theatre Works in Blackpool where she was given individual training.
“We were a close-knit family and still are today,” Cat adds. Just six months after starting her training, at the age of 17 Cat was cast in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar, later playing Candy in Whistle Down The Wind before returning back to Jesus Christ Superstar where Cat played the only female lead role of Mary Magdalene: “That was an exciting time for me. That instant live audience reaction really adds to your experience as a performer and makes you hone your craft, I learned a lot from those roles.”
As well as theatre, Cat’s screen career has been just as fruitful playing Sista Twista in Hip Hop Drama Life and Lyrics, Scarlet Anderson in Family Affairs, Emma in TV drama Ordinary Lies but perhaps her part as DC Kezia Walker is what people would most recognise her for. For three years Cat played this character in the long-running ITV drama, The Bill.
“It was the scariest thing I ever had to do as there were some well-respected actors in The Bill at the time and I had to be on my game.”
After various theatre performances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with The Young Vic, Cat was cast as the role of Nancy in musical legend Cameron Macintosh’s Oliver!
“It was a thrill working with Cameron. He’s an incredibly, passionate and driven man.”
As Cat continued to balance roles on both stage and screen, her performance in the classic musical Sweet Charity at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester was a particularly pleasurable experience for her: “The theatre is one of my favourites to work in, a beautiful place with a brilliant atmosphere. I absolutely loved it.”
With Cat’s experience as a performer it comes as no surprise that she was cast as Hannah in the popular musical Come From Away. The story itself centres around the 12 days following the 9/11 attacks, telling what transpires when 38 planes were ordered to land with passengers arriving in the small town of Gander in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada. Cat’s character is based on a real-life person, whose main motive throughout the musical is to get in contact with her firefighter son just after 9/11.
“It’s been a total joy to work on this project with such brilliantly talented people. It was a challenge playing Hannah as I have never played someone older than me. I felt a duty to portray the true lives of these people and it made me braver as a performer.”
With five weeks of rehearsals and a preview in Dublin, which went extremely well due to the Celtic undertones and energetic live folk band accompanying the cast every night, the 12 lively principal roles enabled the tight knit cast to become a family and the morale certainly shone through on stage.
Reviewing Come From Away, Time Out says: “This miraculous masterpiece is totally, soul-feedingly wonderful.” While The Times says: “This musical gets everything right. Irresistible and inspiring.”
A line that particularly stands out in the musical and one which certainly applies to Cat is, ‘I was one of those kids who always knew what I wanted’.
Seeing her on stage was an example of just what a young girl with dreams, determination and aspirations can do and it was a privilege to see her in her element, doing what she does best.
Come From Away at the Phoenix Theatre, London has been suspended until further notice