SNIFFING around corners and crawling on your belly may not seem like normal everyday behaviour, but for actress Chrissie Hammond it's all in a day's work. For the talented performer is now touring with Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats, which arrives in High Wycombe this month.

Chrissie stars as Grizabella, a role she performed for two-and-a-half years in the West End, and which she has reprised twice before on recent European and UK tours of the show. So what exactly is it that Chrissie loves about Cats?

"It's a strange thing, but many of the cast have actually done the show before as well," says Chrissie, who was a Bucks resident for 20 years before moving recently to London. "We all seem to have this peculiar affection for Cats. I do think the show is absolutely outstanding.

"The fact that Cats has run for 27 years is testimony to how well the show works."

First opened in 1981, the popular musical is based on T S Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. Blending fantasy, drama and romance, the story follows the adventures of the Jellicle cats, who are led by their wise and benevolent leader, Old Deuteronomy. He must make the Jellicle Choice, a chance for one of them to be reborn into a whole new life. But which cat will he choose?

As Grizabella, Chrissie has to emulate a cat who was once the glamour puss of the Jellicle community but who now appears completely withered and dishevelled.

"I think perhaps I identify more than I would like to with Grizabella!" jests Chrissie, who moved to Australia from London when she was two years old and grew up in Melbourne.

"She's certainly had a hard life and been rejected, but she's also brave and indomitable. I would like to think I am as well."

Aside from empathising with her character, Chrissie also has the somewhat difficult task of transforming physically into a cat. So how exactly does she get into character?

"Well, if you have a cat, it certainly helps," she laughs. "When I first rehearsed the part, I did find myself sniffing the ground and crawling around on my belly. I thought this is ridiculous', but then over time you begin to think like a cat and it really does begin to make sense."

She adds: "What's really important is the detail, all those intricacies of being a cat and all those cute little things they do. I always try to bear that in mind when I'm up on stage."

Taking on the mantle of Grizabella also means that Chrissie gets to perform one of the most evocative songs from the show, Memory.

Such is the widespread popularity of the song that more than 150 artists, including Barbra Streisand, Elaine Page, and Michael Crawford, have recorded their own versions of it.

Chrissie says: "There certainly have been some beautiful renditions of Memory. I think every singer does it in his or her own way and it's such a lovely piece. "

Singing is something of a first love for Chrissie, who tells me she came from "an extremely musical family".

She adds: "It was something in the genes. If you're born with that talent, it's not something you can ignore. It was my instinct to sing."

As the years went by, Chrissie developed her talents and eventually formed a band called Cheetah with her sister. They enjoyed relative success and toured internationally, appearing with such renowned artists as U2, Jackson Brown, Neil Young and Gary Moore. In later years, Chrissie joined the legend of prog-rock, Rick Wakeman, as his lead vocalist, touring nine years with him and recording 11 albums.

Her rock talents ultimately piqued the attention of Andrew Lloyd Webber and she was offered the role of Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar. She then landed other West End leads in such musicals as Smokey Joe's Café and Chicago. But it's Cats, she says, that has a particularly special place in her heart.

"It really is an extraordinary piece of work - awe-inspiring," adds Chrissie. "Every time I've ended my season with Cats, I'm always sad to say goodbye, especially as I have a real soft spot for Grizabella. Who knows, this may even be the last time we meet. But it has been a really wonderful journey."

Cats runs at Wycombe Swan until Saturday, May 3. Performances 2.30pm and 7.30pm. Tickets: 01494 512000