BIG INTERVIEW: Rita turns to EastEnders for some sisterly musical guidance

Rita Simons as Paulette and Ben Harlow at Kyle in Legally Blonde - The Musical.

She starred in the soap for 10 years but after being killed off with her screen sister on New Year’s Day, Rita Simons is returning to the stage.

As her character in EastEnders so often did on screen, Rita Simons is turning to her screen sister Samantha Womack for advice in her latest venture.

Luckily my husband is amazing and he’s going to have to continue to be amazing

Rita Simons

After a decade of playing Roxy Mitchell in the BBC1 soap, Rita is making her musical debut as Paulette Bonafonté, the spunky beautician in Legally Blonde: The Musical.

Samantha played Roxy’s sister Ronnie, but unlike Rita, she is a veteran of several stage musicals – most recently as Morticia in The Addams Family musical.

‘This is my first musical theatre,’ Rita tells The Guide. ‘I’ve done singing and singing and singing until the cows come home.

‘And I’ve done two very big pantos – last year and the year before. The first one I did at the Marlowe Theatre [in Canterbury] was like a musical, and because they know I sing, my role is always all-singing, all-dancing.

‘In a way doing that has been great rehearsal for me to get used to it up there, to decide whether I love it – which I do. Otherwise coming into this completely fresh would be much more daunting.’

But yes, she has turned to her good friend and screen sister for advice.

‘If I’ve ever got a question about musical theatre, I go to Sam. Even things like what digs should I book? Do you go home on a Sunday? Should I bring the kids up? She’s basically lived a parallel life to me, which is weird.

‘Then equally, she comes to me for advice – whenever she does panto she’s always played the goodie, except she played the baddy for the first time last year, so she came to me for advice in playing the baddy, which I love doing because I can just tell everyone to “Shut up!”’

In Legally Blonde, Rita’s character was played on film by comedy actress Jennifer Coolidge, best known as Stiffler’s Mom in the American Pie series of films.

‘I love the way Jennifer plays her in the film, but Paulette’s not like that on stage, if she was like that on stage, she would never speak. She was very quiet in the film. It was mainly facial – she was so comedy, and there’s still elements of that, but it’s a much livelier version of Paulette on stage.

‘It is a bigger part on stage too, and also with the big numbers she has you get to learn more about her on stage than in the film. You know where you get one of those big character-driven songs where you get to find out everything about her in the space of three minutes, and what’s happened to her?’

In the murky world of the web,and it might be said some people have too much time on their hands, there are essays devoted to how Paulette is the most important role in the film and something of a feminist icon.

Rita laughs when she hears this: ‘She is the heart of the piece, I get that, I never knew about all this other stuff though!

‘She’s got this obsession with Ireland and has this big number about Ireland, but the message beneath it all in the sub-text, is that you go out and fight for what you want, if you want this guy, you fight for him. Until this point Elle has been too ready to give up and Paulette keeps drumming it into her that she can get anything she wants. Meanwhile Paulette needs more help than anyone else on her own confidence issues, but she gets that from Elle – they have this wonderful friendship.’

X Factor finalist Lucie Jones is Elle, the role made famous by Reese Witherspoon, and Bill Ward as Professor Callahan. Bill holds the honour of being killed off in two soaps – Emmerdale and Corrie.

Rita made her dramatic exit from soapland when Roxy and Ronnie died in a double wedding day drowning on New Year’s Day this year. But she says she’s glad Roxy is definitely dead.

‘There’s a strange sense of relief. The finality of it all makes it much easier to go: “Right, what’s coming up? What am I doing next?” And move on. ‘I think for a lot of characters who either died off-screen or didn’t die at all spend the rest of their lives wondering if they’ll go back, should they go back? This way it’s much cleaner.

‘And it is time to move on. That’s exactly what I’m doing, and I’m loving it.’

Although Rita hadn’t worked with anyone else in the cast or crew before, she likens it to starting on EastEnders.

‘It’s very much, in a weird way like when I started EastEnders 10 years ago. I didn’t know anyone, but I did have my big sister from day one!

‘This is a whole new learning process, a whole new bunch of people, a whole new work discipline, so any time I feel a bit overwhelmed I remind myself that I went through this 10 years ago, and then spent 10 years loving it, so I know that this is going to be great.’

Rita is committed to the tour until next July. The one aspect she’s not looking forward to is being separated from her family for so long – her twin daughters have just started secondary school.

‘Luckily my husband is amazing and he’s going to have to continue to be amazing. If I know I’m seeing them at the weekend, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but when I was in Canterbury for nine weeks it was really hard and it’s going to be hard again. We got through it, and we’ll get through it again. My husband and I are a good team.’

• Legally Blonde the Musical is at Mayflower Theatre, Southampton from November 14-18. Tickets £19.50-£42.50. Go to mayflower.org.uk.

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