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.