Olivia Poulet

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Originally written for The Stage.

Olivia Poulet has a good line in peddling the unpalatable. The actor and writer is best known for her role as pragmatic,  fast-thinking Tory policy adviser Emma Messenger in television satire The Thick of It and is currently starring as a hard-nosed Hollywood producer in Mark Ravenhill’s monologue Product at the Arcola Theatre. Both characters are always desperately putting a positive spin on the catastrophic – or, as Poulet bluntly puts it, “trying to polish a turd”.

“That’s what was appealing in the writing for me,” she says of her first impressions of Ravenhill’s script. In the play, Poulet’s character is pitching an audaciously offensive romantic thriller about a relationship between a 9/11 widow and an  Al Qaeda terrorist, skewering the ways  in which Hollywood glosses over tragedy and complexity. “It’s just very, very witty, and when I first read it I thought ‘I know how I’d want to play this part’.”

In her teens and early 20s, Poulet developed her skills as a performer in  the National Youth Theatre and at the University of Manchester, where she was involved in the student drama scene. “You get much more scope at uni; people take risks because they have less to lose,” she says. “Also having no money and rehearsing in a cupboard upstairs enables you to justmuck in and get on with it wherever you are.”

Straight out of university, Poulet landed a role in a production of The School for Scandal at Derby Playhouse, but she describes the job as “fairly diabolical” looking back. “I learnt a lot,” she reflects on the experience, describing herself as “wide-eyed and innocent” going into it.

“You have to learn how to put your foot down, without being a pain in the arse. I think sometimes people can…” She pauses. “Manipulate is maybe too strong a word, but when you’re young and starting out there are some people who slightly take advantage of that.”

Thanks to more recent meaty roles in plays such as How I Learned to Drive at Southwark Playhouse and Out of Joint’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, which she describes as “a really magical experience”, Poulet now stresses the importance of holding out for the right parts. “Yes, the money’s not great, and sometimes you’re a bit hand to mouth for a bit, but the challenge of doing a part that is really exciting and fulfilling is just so worth it,” she says of her work in theatre. “Of course you’ve got to make money, but I think as I’ve got older I’m definitely very much about the part and I feel less desperation to just be working for the sake of it.”

She adds that her parallel career as  a writer keeps her going during lean  periods. “It’s incredibly important to  have something else you love, otherwise you can go a bit doolally if you put everything on to acting.”

Poulet had always written alongside acting, but it was only when she paired up with friend and fellow performer Sarah Solemani to write The Bird Flu Diaries, a comedy that the duo took to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006, that she thought about pursuing it further. Similarly to acting, though, Poulet has found that writing for stage and screen can be a tough profession to break into. “It’s hard,” she admits. “Everyone gives writing a bit of a crack – why not? It’s very highly populated; there’s a lot of people sending in scripts and drafts. But I think there’s probably quite a lot ofpeople who aren’t very good at it as well. Now I think I’ve finally got to a place whereby it’s been recognised that I can write.”

Although her focus has moved to the stage in recent years, Poulet still acknowledges the huge impact of The Thick of It. The programme’s makers threw her and the rest of the cast in the deep end by demanding regular on-camera improvisation, a challenge that was both terrifying and exhilarating. “I love structure,” says Poulet, “but my brain thrives under pressure and always has.” This process chimes with the frequent behind-the-scenes crises depicted by the series, which Poulet suggests “opened up people’s eyes to the lunacy”  of much of modern politics.

As well as both turning around media disasters, there’s a strain of frantic,  suppressed despair that long-suffering Emma Messenger shares with the superficially confident speaker in Product. “I think it smacks of desperation, the whole pitch,” says Poulet, explaining that she has seized on the character’s “fragility and vulnerability” in her performance.

“There are a lot of swans,” she  suggests, offering a neat metaphor for both British politics and the “undercurrent of desperation” in Product.  “A lot of people who are trying to look smooth on the surface and scrabbling around like nutters underneath.”

Photo: Richard Davenport.

Product, Arcola Theatre

Originally written for Exeunt.

There’s something behind Olivia Poulet’s eyes. It might be steely pragmatism. It might be desperation. It might be suppressed disbelief at the spectacularly awful script she is determinedly trying to sell. It might, worse, be genuine passion for the regurgitated tropes she’s trotting out. It might even be dollar signs, if the starlet she’s pitching to gives the nod.

Mark Ravenhill’s monologue is a witty parody of the film-studio hard sell, the product of its title a slice of syrupy Hollywood cliché – the kind that rots your teeth. Girl meets boy. Girl goes on journey. Love over all else. It’s sharp, clever, self-satisfied. Only in the (nervously gesturing) hands of Poulet does it become something more than that. As a riff on the cynical, opportunistic practices of movie executives, Product is arch and entertaining. As an essay on shit-shovelling desperation, it’s blackly depressing.

Poulet is Leah, the producer charged with getting a star name on board for a new project. Problem is, the project in question is Mohammed and Me, a post-9/11 mash-up of romcom and jihadism with a cameo from Osama Bin Laden (yes, really). Sitting in for Julia, the actor selected to save this rapidly sinking ship, we’re treated to Leah’s increasingly frantic pitch as she takes us on the emotional journey of “three-dimensional” lead Amy. “I would love to see you play three-dimensional,” she croons at us, smile fixed.

Folding the War on Terror into classic chick-lit formula, Mohammed and Me is the doomed love story of a 9/11 widow and a suicide bomber – or, in appearance-obsessed Hollywood-speak, a Versace-clad businesswoman and the “tall, dusky fellow” she finds herself sat next to on a flight. Step aside Romeo and Juliet; this is a star-crossed romance like no other. Leah walks us through the movieland Holy Trinity of attraction, separation and reunion, with bomb threats and prison break-ins thrown in for good measure. “This is the world of the heart,” she earnestly intones, with all the persuasion of one who’s never had call for the organ.

It’s clearly tripe, with Ravenhill using the godawful script in Leah’s hands as a vehicle for taking pops at everything from Hollywood’s casual misogyny to its obsession with sex and violence (the two often barely distinguishable from one another). There’s a transformation montage scene, a blandly identikit mother/aunt/neighbour figure – “she’s too old to fuck, too old to kick ass, but we still have a place for her in our world” – and a suitably slushy soundtrack. Tick, tick, tick.

But what Poulet does in Robert Shaw’s production is give the money-making behemoth of Hollywood human context. Darting her eyes from side to side, appealing to us with her ever-moving hands, narrating the plot of Mohammed and Me with desperate abandon, Leah has the look of a woman possessed. What she’s possessed with, exactly, is ambiguous. At moments, she seems swept away by the story, eyes closed in its telling. At others, she’s practically gagging on this material, correcting herself mid-sentence: “This material is fab – is going to be fabulous once it’s punched up”. Either way, there’s a constant undertow of desperation and self-deceit, hinting at all the things we force ourselves and others believe in the name of self-interest.

Having the monologue spoken by a woman (it was originally performed by Ravenhill himself) also twists it in intriguing directions, glazing the misogyny with an even sourer coating. When Leah patronisingly says that she “cried like a woman” and jokingly refers to her listener as a “bitch”, you sense that she really means it. Especially in Shaw and Poulet’s interpretation, this isn’t just about the movie industry; it’s about all those oppressive internalised narratives – of sexism, of racism, of greed – that twenty-first-century capitalism shoves down our throats. The scariest suggestion is that we might just end up swallowing them.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

Shivered, Southwark Playhouse

In this latest piece from seemingly ubiquitous polymath Philip Ridley, form does not so much reflect content as it does context. Ridley’s shattered play is a chillingly appropriate response to an increasingly fractured modern society, with casually engendered violence and careless cruelty glinting back at us from each piercing shard of narrative. It is not quite entirely without hope or brief glimpses of redemption, but the dark, nightmarish landscape of Shivered does evoke the sense that, as disillusioned soldier Alec passionately argues, the world is almost incurably sick.

Ridley’s chopped up story takes as its setting the fictional Essex new-town of Draylingstowe, once upon a time a symbol of hope and prosperity, now a post-industrial playground for violent youth. The derelict car plant that once held the town’s promise is now a shady backdrop for drug-taking, suicide and cruel sexual fantasies, while Draylingstowe’s disenchanted citizens find meaning in conspiracy theories, whispers of extra-terrestrial activity and mysterious canal-dwelling monsters. It is a world that hovers somewhere between fairytale, nightmare and grim reality; grubby concrete illuminated by the garish lights and glitter of the fairground.

This semi-mythical world is vividly conjured by Ridley’s assorted collage of narrative snapshots, cutting and dicing the story of two interlinked Draylingstowe families. Lyn’s family is as fragmented as the play itself, shattered by the loss first of her son Alec, who is brutally beheaded while serving overseas in the army, and then the disappearance of husband Mikey, leaving her with only her younger, UFO-obsessed son Ryan. When the fair arrives in town it brings with it the tantalising promise of sexual excitement, as Lyn meets opportunistic showman Gordy and the pair begin to meet in the disused car plant, her son’s favourite haunt. Meanwhile, Ryan’s friend Jack finds escape from the torment of bullies and the daily drudge of caring for his overweight mother in graphic YouTube videos of sex and violence – one of which happens to be a recording of Alec’s horrific execution.

But none of it is quite as simple as this. The above narrative is the one that we as an audience piece together, filling in the blanks between the scattered series of scenes that Ridley presents before us, making almost subconscious links. It is an ingenious, dazzling exercise in plotting, throwing chronology into chaos without plunging the whole into incomprehensible obscurity, but Ridley’s experimental approach to structure is not a mere demonstration of his startling ability as a writer. Central to the play that Ridley has crafted are questions of how we fight to find meaning and explain our own existence, be it through narrative, religion or superstition.

There is repeated talk of ‘illusory contours’: the patterns we find in unlinked objects, like constellations of stars. This same mental process is one that we are unwittingly forced into, as Ridley coaxes us into making connections before throwing these into doubt. Are these collected scenes really linked in the way we imagine them to be, or are we guilty of the same forced, wilful conclusions as Ryan in his determined hunt for UFOs? What, ultimately, can we believe in? In the dark, slowly rotting world of the play, under the haunting spectre of abandoned industrialisation and rapidly unravelling values, the answer would seem to be very little.

The bare, evocatively lit space of the Southwark Playhouse has never seemed more bleak than in Russell Bolam’s stripped down, almost minimalist production. There is nowhere to hide for either writing or actors – or for audience, for that matter. Ridley’s boldly drawn characters jump out at us, sometimes quite literally in the case of Gordy’s fairground act, performed with effervescent showmanship by the buzzing, charismatic Andrew Hawley. There is impressive work too from a fragile yet cuttingly sardonic and sometimes fiercely wounding Olivia Poulet as Lyn and from Robbie Jarvis as her broken son Alec, who is haunted by unnamed ‘monsters’.

Ridley’s strange, disturbing not-quite-dystopia is never as unsettling, however, as when seen through the eyes of its young protagonists, whose twelve-year-old imaginations the playwright has convincingly penetrated. Ryan and Josh retain barely discernible traces of youthful innocence and optimism, but their existence has been permeated by technology and readily available violence, numbing them to the reality of physical aggression and placing a computer or mobile phone screen between them and all of their experiences. These two troubled and troubling youngsters are convincingly portrayed by the outstanding Joseph Drake and Joshua Williams, who are by turns bitingly funny and uncompromisingly brutal – phrases that could well describe Ridley’s play.

Despite a plot which is, when reassembled into chronological order, comparatively slight, this is meaty fare. Ridley dwells on both startlingly contemporary issues, such as our desensitisation to violence and the very real threats of post-industrial society, and timeless, universal questions of how we find meaning in our lives, with vivid dashes of magical storytelling thrown in for good measure. It is, as the playwright himself has described it, a ‘state-of-the-nation dream play’. The dreamlike is always close to the surface here, featuring dialogue saturated with fantastical references to monsters, aliens and other childhood fears. But the real world, as Ridley unflinchingly demonstrates, is so much scarier.

Shivered runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 14 April.