From surviving the Aussie jungle to now braving the spooky stage play The House on Cold Hill, actor Rita Simons has barely been home since leaving the streets of Walford. JLife’s Evangeline Spachis finds out more…
Leaving a soap after 10 years isn’t easy for many, but for Rita Simons, the actor behind much-loved Eastenders character Roxy Mitchell, it’s been pretty non-stop since Roxy’s dramatic exit in 2017. Now starring in Peter James’ The House on Cold Hill at Leeds Grand Theatre from 29th April, Rita’s acting schedule of 20 dates across the UK remains just as relentless as working on a primetime drama: “The last time I was at home for a substantial amount of time was nearly two years ago. I had a few months off after my last tour [Legally Blonde] before I went into the jungle, but apart from that, since I left Eastenders I’ve been on the road constantly.
“I’ve been very lucky and I’ve worked a lot since I’ve left so I can’t complain!” enthuses Rita.
A modern-day ghostly thriller adapted from the best-selling 2015 novel of the same name, The House on Cold Hill is based on the author’s own real-life experience in a haunted house. Rita stars alongside Strictly winner Joe McFadden as Caro and Ollie Harcourt, a married couple who move into the house of their dreams that has stood empty for the last 40 years. Their dream home quickly turns into the stuff of nightmares as they begin to sense that they aren’t the only residents at Cold Hill.
Looking for the perfect role to take on after her time on ITV’s I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here, the play immediately grabbed Rita’s attention: “I read quite a lot of scripts and sometimes you find one that you read straight away and can’t put down: “I think because it was such a page-turner as a book, when it was transferred to the stage, it brings it all to life. Peter James’ novels are notoriously good at keeping you on the edge of your seat.”
Audiences have really been getting behind this modern take on the classic haunted house genre, which cleverly takes modern household technology and uses it as a weapon against the family’s descent into horror: “We’ve pretty much sold out every show we’ve done and when we played Brighton which is where the story is set, we did an extra matinee show to a packed-out audience. The feedback has been brilliant, but Peter has a massive following so I think his plays will always do well, just because people also love his books too.”
Rita’s character, Caro, is change-up from the usual female characters that can sometimes litter ghostly stories: “She’s the matriarch, I guess. The solicitor, the wife, the mother, the sensible one. She’s dependable and intelligent and a straight-talking woman…me? I’m far from sensible!”
The play also takes a break from the spooks, adding a touch of levity to occasionally defuse the ramped-up tension, which has certainly been appreciated by theatregoers so far: “There’s quite a lot of humour in the show which we like…we’ve purposefully put some humour in there. You definitely notice that some audiences will laugh when they are nervous. It’s so British, isn’t it? To be shocked when you’ve shown some emotion!
“But, that’s what I love about theatre, you do get that immediate feedback and response.”
The House on Cold Hill will have been frightening audiences for nearly four months across the UK by the time it hits Manchester, but has the play taken its toll on Rita? Nah, it seems: “It’s very difficult to scare me, I’ve grown up watching horror films, so I am not easily scared in the slightest!”
So that bravery will have come in handy then when Rita decided to tackle surviving in the Australian jungle for I’m a Celeb last year, alongside contestants she now firmly calls friends. In fact, speaking to JLife from Hull New Theatre, Rita reveals they all chat daily on their group Whatsapp, and is particularly close to Anne Hegarty (of ITV’s daytime gameshow The Chase): “I speak to Anne every day, and she has just told me that I must go see this aquarium in Hull [The Deep]!” Their blossoming friendship was one of the many memorable take-aways from the popular reality show: “I was very protective of Anne and I just loved her from the day we met. What they didn’t show is that I used to take Anne down to the waterfall and help her get her shoes on, for example – we all did, we all took her under our wing.
“I kind of understand a lot of stuff regarding mental health, autism and things like that, so it’s not something new to me. I am fascinated by Anne and the way she thinks, and I just think she is an amazing woman.”
The friendly affair continues as fellow ex-Eastender Charlie Clements, who played Bradley Branning, is also part of The House on Cold Hill’s cast: “Yeah, me and ol’ Charlie Clements! What can I tell you, I hadn’t seen him for about eight years so it’s really great. He left Eastenders a couple of years after I started.
“The whole cast are amazing and brilliant actors. It’s easy to work with all of them, and we’re a lovely little company of seven, so it’s really nice.”
See Rita Simons in The House on Cold Hill at Leeds Grand Theatre from 29th April – 4th May. Book tickets at Leedsgrandtheatre.com.