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Brief Encounter With ... Olivia Poulet

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Olivia Poulet is currently starring in Philip Ridley's new play Shivered, which premieres at Southwark Playhouse this week (13 March 2012, previews from 7 March).

Poulet's previous stage credits include Top Girls (Chichester/West End), A Voyage Round My Father (Salisbury) and Fiasco (Soho), while TV credits include The Thick of It, Sherlock, Outnumbered, Love Soup and Whatever Love Means.

Tell us about Shivered
I was trying to tell someone what it was about the other day and described it as a ‘state of the nation memory play’. It’s a play that deals with grief and a family exploding when something completely unimaginable happens to them. It’s all non-linear, you start at the end and end at the beginning, so it almost feels like it’s a happy, positive ending though in actuality it's not. It’s quite hard to explain, like a lot of Philip’s stuff. He started as a performance artist, so his plays tend to be quite unique and very visual – The Pitchfork Disney, which is currently on at the Arcola, being an obvious example.

Is it surreal, like Pitchfork?
It’s actually very different to Pitchfork in that sense – I’d say it’s very grounded in reality. It’s dark and brutal and painful, but there’s also a degree of hope. It feels like a more mature play, you can tell it was written at a very different phase of his career.

Has Philip been involved in rehearsals?
He was very much involved in the casting process and the early stages because we made a lot of tweaks and changes based on discussions in the rehearsal room. We’ve now got a 'final' script but I’m sure it will be tweaked and changed as we go. He’s amazing, and it’s very exciting to be working on a brand new play. And given that I’m used to working on things like The Thick of It which involves a lot of improvisation, I don’t mind having things evolving quite late on.

Joseph Drake & Olivia Poulet in Shivered

Who do you play?
She’s called Lyn and she moves to a new town in Essex when she's pregnant with her youngest son. They have a normal family life until this horrendous thing happens to her son and everything dissipates and changes and this town begins to decay along with their family. It’s quite extraordinary how Philip writes women. She’s strong and brave but also grieving to the point of insanity, so it’s quite difficult trying to get the balance of tone, not just being on the floor for half the play.

Did you consciously want to play against type?
Not really. I try and go with projects that interest me and excite me and challenge me, so I didn’t set out to go “I shall cast off my middle class posh girl demeanour and be a damaged Essex mother”. 

You’ve been pretty busy recently
I really wanted to work with Max Stafford-Clark so when Top Girls came along that was just amazing - the time of my life. Then this came along and I’m doing another series of The Thick of It pretty much straight after. I’ve been lucky to get to do so much London theatre in between the TV work.

Top Girls attracted quite a range of reactions
It certainly split the room. Our favourite audience comment was an old man saying to his wife, “Well if we still don’t understand it in the next interval, dear, we can always have an ice-cream.” And there was a woman who said (in response to the scene where famous women from history are sitting round a table), “I think I recognise the modern one, dear. She’s an actress.” And then her friend said, “I think they’re all actresses”. I wanted to hover in the foyer every night just to hear the comments.

Are you and Sarah Solemani still doing comedy together?
Yes we are. She’s been doing The House of Bernada Alba and a few things on her own, and I’ve been writing a film. But we’ve got some stuff we’re pitching together in America which they seem quite excited about so we’ll probably go back there next year, depending on how things pan out.

If you could emulate anyone’s career, whose would it be?
I really like being able to write and generate my own work, so I think in comedy terms someone like Tina Fey; there’s something really interesting about her in that she kept going with her writing and ended up getting 30 Rock. She seems pretty unstoppable and uncompromising, and just rather brilliant and dynamic.

In a nutshell, why should people come and see Shivered?
It’s really challenging, really thought-provoking and I think whatever your views on the issues in it, or on Philip’s writing, it will pack a punch. I don’t think you’ll leave the theatre saying, “That was alright”. I think you’ll either leave going, “They’re all evil people, I never want to see any of them again”, or “That was completely mind-blowing and I can’t stop thinking about it”. Either way you’ll have an opinion. Much like Top Girls.

- Olivia Poulet was speaking to Theo Bosanquet


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