“I’m in a WhatsApp group with all 11 I’m A Celeb contestants…” Rita Simons shares jungle secrets ahead of Norwich appearance
- Credit: Helen Maybanks
Rita Simons talks about her time on I'm a Celebrity, what she shares with her uncle Lord Sugar's daughter and why she's looking forward to coming back to Norwich to appear in Peter James' The House on Cold Hill in March.
Rita Simons and I share something notable – with a (very) motley crew of others that include Prince Edward, Osama bin Laden and Chuck Norris.
We were all born on March 10, which is the day before Rita arrives in Norwich to appear at Norwich Theatre Royal in Peter James' supernatural thriller The House on Cold Hill and falls on her day off, a Sunday, when she'll be briefly back at home with her husband and two children.
'Although I'd like to say that I'll be having a big celebration, in fact I will be unpacking my case, doing my washing, re-packing my case and packing in all the domestic stuff I'd normally do over a whole week into one day,' she laughs, 'very glamorous!'
She then remembers that she's got a special birthday dinner with a girlfriend planned and that her brother Ben, his wife and children will be coming round for a takeaway on her birthday weekend…and she's thought of someone else that shares our big day: 'My cousin Louise, Lord Sugar's daughter, she was born on March 10, too! And now I think about it, I think Shane (Richie, Alfie in EastEnders) is the next day. It's all happening in March!
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'This is an expensive time of the year for my family – we've just had my husband's birthday and my girls Maiya and Jaimee have just turned 13. Have they turned into typical teenagers overnight? No – they did that years ago!'
Rita, once a regular in millions of households thanks to her 10-year stint on EastEnders as one of the infamous Mitchell sisters (she was Roxy) and her recent tenure in the I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here jungle in December, is a tonic to interview compared to many tight-lipped stars I've spent a torturous time on the phone with. Open, warm and funny, she continually apologises for yawning.
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'I am SO tired,' she tells me, 'and I've already got to that stage of the tour when I have to think about where I actually am. I absolutely love being on stage and the play, but there's a time in the day – about now - when I struggle a bit because it's a demanding role and a demanding schedule.
'Still, sorry to be rude. It's not you, it's me! I'm actually really used to being on tour because I've been away from home for about a year and a half now what with being in Legally Blonde (which also came to Norwich) and then going to the jungle.
Rita's role in The House on Cold Hill is as Caro Harcourt, the wife of Ollie Harcourt who is played by Joe McFadden. On stage in Norwich from March 11 to 16, the play is the story of Caro, Ollie and their 12-year-old daughter Jade who move from Brighton to the Sussex countryside.
Their new home, a huge, dilapidated Georgian mansion house, is supposed to offer the trio a slice of paradise with beautiful views, but swiftly it becomes apparent that the Harcourt family aren't the only residents in their house and that someone, or something, else is sharing their new home.
The cast also includes award-winning actors Charlie Clements (Bradley in EastEnders) as Chris, and Persephone Swales-Dawson (villainess Nico Blake in Hollyoaks) as Jade, making her professional stage debut. They say that moving house is stressful: moving into a haunted mansion, however, is off the scale.
'It's a great story and it's full of twists and turns,' says Rita, who doesn't want to be drawn on whether or not she believes in ghosts ('ghosts, politics, religion – I steer clear of talking about any of them: it's asking for trouble').
'I'm a massive fan of mysteries and thrillers. When I was a kid, and probably way too young, I loved watching really scary films and I'm into anything mysterious or scary, which this certainly is in places. I couldn't put the script down when I first read it. Like all of Peter's books The House On Cold Hill is such a page-turner. That's why they make such good stage adaptations. You get that sense of tension exactly as if you were turning a page and also because it's modern-day, people can really relate to his stories.'
And Rita is looking forward to returning to Norwich: 'When you're on tour, there are some places you really remember and some that you don't. Norwich is one of the ones that stands out because I was surprised when I got there to find out just how pretty it is. The theatre is great, too, and is in a really handy location. I had a lovely house when I stayed there last so I'm hoping to get that again and spend a bit more time exploring the city.'
On the subject of exploring, or perhaps adventuring, Rita is still full of stories about her time in the I'm a Celebrity jungle and talks about a life-affirming experience, brushing away huge spiders from her face in the middle of the night, chatting to crocodiles, conquering her fears and the WhatsApp group where all 11 contestants speak to each other daily and where Nick Knowles offers fire kindling tutorials on video.
'I loved being in the jungle, just loved it. It was really hard, harder than I would have ever imagined, but the pay-off was incredible,' she tells me.
'I was hungrier than I had ever been in my life, it was physically tough and the day-to-day life was so hard – but I learned so much about myself and about what I can do when I try. It has changed my life for the better and I now have so many new mates. James (McVey, guitarist with The Vamps) was my best buddy in there but I've met up with several of the campmates and have plans to see more. That kind of experience binds you together forever.
'I always said that after EastEnders, I would give myself a year to establish myself in theatre before I even thought about reality shows and even then, I wouldn't do anything that sensationalises horrible behaviour – the jungle is about challenges, and I like to challenge myself.'
After years of people shouting 'Roxy!' at her in the street, her stint in the I'm a Celebrity jungle means they're now shouting 'Rita!' instead, which is a welcome reprieve, although the actress is happy to be remembered for her role as one of the Mitchells.
'Bizarrely, one of my first ever scenes in Walford was with Charlie (Clements) who is in this play!' she recalls, 'someone once said to me that if you can last for 10 years in a soap, you're doing something right, and I agree – it's pretty relentless and you have to be able to keep up. I loved EastEnders but when people ask if I'd consider going back, I do have to point out that I'm dead, so it'd be hard…'
I suggest that she could return as a different Mitchell: Ben, Phil's son, a role which has controversially been recast six times.
'Good idea!' she laughs enthusiastically, 'I could be the next Ben Mitchell…he was so obsessed with his cousin Roxy that he's determined to look like her, and…maybe not, but it'd be a way back in, wouldn't it?'
Happy birthday to us on March 10, Rita, let's raise a glass to Prince Edward, Chuck Norris and your cousin Louise.
• The House On Cold Hill is at Norwich Theatre Royal from March 11 to 16. For more details, visit www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk or call the box office on 01603 630000.