She had a triumphant first night in the West End, but the days before were peppered with damaging speculation.
Here, in her first interview since weathering the storm, Billie Piper hits back at the gossips.
Last week, says Billie Piper, rolling tired eyes, was "amazingly stressful". As the first night of the West
End play in which she stars, Christopher Hampton's Treats, loomed into view, the "hysteria surrounding the show" seemed only
"I was nervous and everybody was nervous and [appearing in the West End] is not the easiest thing to do in
the world, and then you have this hysteria.
"It's just frustrating more than anything. I've been doing this since I was 14, and I've had that level of
attention since I was 14, and I just try and ignore it as much as I can.
"But when the press are sat outside your stage door en masse, it's quite hard to brush off. You know, I'm
pretty unflappable, but it was," she pauses to find the right word, biting her lip, "it was an interesting week."
Press interest, of course, was always high from the moment Piper announced that she would appear on-stage
and in the West End for the first time.
At 24, she has packed more into two careers - as a teen pop star and then TV actress, most notably starring
as Dr Who's girly sidekick Rose Tyler for the BBC - than many achieve in a lifetime.
Her four-year marriage to Chris Evans, 16 years her senior and once a wunderkind himself, merely spiked public
curiosity. So could she pull it off? Was she really as good as she seemed on TV?
For a while, according to press reports, it looked as though we might never find out. First, in an almost
unprecedented move, the opening night of Treats was delayed by a week, amid rumours that the show wasn't ready and that Hampton
himself wasn't happy.
Then Piper got ill, and pulled out of two preview performances. The stories came thick and fast. She was going
to marry her boyfriend and co-star Laurence Fox, son of the actor James Fox - no, wait, the magic had worn off, and they were
on the brink of a split.
Billie was photographed at a café in Belsize Park, where she lives, apparently crying on Evans's shoulder
- no, wait, they were seen in a black cab outside the Garrick Theatre, grinning, laughing; with Fox crammed into the back
Piper was either "on the edge", "exhausted" and over-stressed by the challenge she'd taken on, or she was
partying too hard and simply not taking it seriously enough at all. Were we keeping up with all this?
Piper claims that none - or almost none - of it is true. "If I start to think about everything that everybody
writes about me, I would probably break - I'm just trying something new and there's nothing wrong with that, and, yes, it's
"I mean, no s**t Sherlock, it's my first time on the West End stage and I've never done it before - it's hardly
surprising that it's going to be really terrifying.
"You know, most stage actors find it scary, even the really great and experienced ones like Maggie Smith.
That's why it's so addictive, I imagine."
We are sitting in the green room deep in the bowels of the Garrick Theatre, where the paint hangs in long
peeling strips from the walls and the carpet is vaguely sticky underfoot.
We are surrounded by mirrors. Piper, hunched over her knees as she talks, peers sideways at her reflection
from under that mop of blonde hair, and says, with no ceremony at all, that she looks like "s**t on a stick".
But actually, she's far fresher than I'd expected. There are dark patches under her eyes, but her skin is
clear and vibrant. She has grown into that striking, big-featured face, and later, onstage that afternoon, she looks astonishingly
Dressed in a tight black jumper, jogging pants and sneakers, she is slender but not skeletal. She arrives
at the theatre eating a large bar of Cadbury's Dairy Milk.
She does not want to delve deeply into her private life, but I sense an instinctive if curt, honesty when
asked about it.
We might as well clear up the rumours, I say to her, and she nods unhappily. So is she going to marry Laurence
Fox? "No. I'm not even divorced yet, so that would be impossible."
I tell her I love the fact that Fox and Evans seem - according to that snatched photo of them in the back
of the taxi at any rate - to get on so well.
"Chris came to see the show and we went out to celebrate," she says. "It was a good night for us and it was
great to see him. I don't really see [Chris] that much at the moment because of this play.
"You say goodbye to your social life, and we work completely different hours. So it was just nice to have
him there. He had some really good notes for us, too."
She makes no bones about the fact that Evans is still a major presence in her life - the best friend to whom
she'd turn during a crisis.
Yet, a fortnight ago, that day at the Belsize Park café: "I wasn't crying at all," she insists. "I was talking
to Chris about something that was completely unrelated to the show, and I was squinting because the sun was so bright. There's
just no truth to it."
On the other hand, Piper does not try to pretend that the show's opening was delayed for any other reason
than that it needed improvement. Had she really wanted to test herself, she could hardly have picked a greater challenge.
Treats, first staged to no great acclaim in 1976, is a three-hander (in this production, the charismatic Kris
Marshall stars alongside Piper and Fox), in which all the best lines go to the men, and the female character is allowed to
develop only in the last half hour.
The show was a success on tour for five weeks, but as it came into London, it needed more work.
"There's tough competition in London," she says. "We wanted to reblock a few things and change the set slightly,
which is why we needed our extra week.
"You just want to make it as good as you can, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that, or anything
to be ashamed of in it. It can only ever be a good thing, when you want to improve."
It was gastric flu, she says, that caused her to pull out of the show last week. "I was literally throwing
my guts up, which was horrid. But we've all had it. The boys had it on their days off, which was really quite jammy, and my
understudy Nina has got it now. It's been going round."
I ask her whether the experience ever got so fraught that she genuinely considered just upping and leaving
the show. We talk of actorly wobbles and of Stephen Fry, who 12 years ago, left the West End show Cell Mates in the throes
of a full-on nervous breakdown.
"I didn't once think of abandoning it, no. I couldn't do that. But you know, I do understand maybe why [Fry]
did." She laughs wryly. "There have been times when I've thought: Oh God, I'd love to just hop in my car and drive far, far
Later she claims, with a tone of grim resignation, that certain sections of the press actually wanted her
to collapse under the pressure.
"It's inevitable. People love all that. They want it to be hard and they want it to be a struggle and they
want me to break, or they want other people to break."
It's the only time at which Piper, who's otherwise terribly polite, sounds vaguely cross - and if she also
sounds paranoid, well, she's the one in the eye of the storm.
"You're not going to write another sob story about me, are you?" she asks, rather plaintively towards the
end of the interview.
Yet, hats off to her, when the curtain finally went up on the re-scheduled First Night, Piper proved a hit
- within the confines of a difficult play at least.
In this newspaper, Nicholas de Jongh called it "an impressive West End debut of genuine emotional power",
while others credited her "poise and presence", and her "intelligent" interpretation of the role.
She is hugely relieved. "I feel as though I can relax a bit more now. Not massively, but a bit."
This weekend, Piper is back where she still feels most comfortable - on telly, in an ITV adaptation of Jane
Austen's Mansfield Park, in which she plays the sweet-hearted Fanny Price.
She loves the fact that the film was shot on a hand-held camera "which makes it soooo much more watchable,
because sometimes I think period dramas can be a bit dull and stuffy".
Intriguingly, she's next signed up to play Belle de Jour, the anonymous sexual adventuress whose online blog
earned her a reported six-figure book deal.
From Fanny Price to rampant promiscuity? "Oh God, I love mixing it up like that!" she says. "I get bored quite
easily and I do like to take myself out of my comfort zone. I want to do that kind of thing now, at the beginning of my career,
before I get too scared."
She left Dr Who after only two series for the same reason. "If I'd continued to do Dr Who, I'm sure I'd have
been too scared to leave. It was so comfortable doing it, every script is beautifully written, every actor superb.
"People think I'm mad for leaving and sometimes I do too." She laughs again. "But then if I'd stayed any longer
I certainly wouldn't have done any theatre. I think I'd have lost my bottle."
What Piper wants, you sense, is real, grown-up control over her career. As a 15-year-old pop star, fresh out
of Sylvia Young's Theatre School, her life was "micro-managed".
She rebelled by drinking too much, experimenting with drugs and flirting with anorexia - until Evans came
along and, contrary to all speculation at the time, helped straighten her out.
As an actress, she gets to make her own decisions. "I'm one of those people who pretends they're not a control
freak, but really that's what I am. My house is very neat. Obsessively neat."
Yet she has never been able to control fully the one thing she would most like to escape: her own fame.
I ask her whether she would like to go to Hollywood, and she replies: "It's something actors and agents and
producers talk a lot about, and so you do consider it.
"But I don't think world fame, the kind you get from starring in a Hollywood film, is necessarily a good thing.
I don't think I want that. In fact, I know I don't."
Treats has another two months to run, and after that Piper intends to go on holiday - maybe to America, where
she can walk down the street without being mobbed by Dr Who fans.
"The great thing my pop career taught me is the importance of time off. Because you do burn out and you do
go mad and I don't ever want that to happen to me again."
Piper may be a little bruised by her first experience of the theatre, but she's very far from fragile.
As she sits on stage waiting for the curtain to go up at the beginning of the show, her "heart is beating
so strongly I think it'll come through my chest".
"But then, when you're out there, you feel so alive. It really sorts you out if you're feeling tired. It sharpens
you - I wasn't an avid theatre goer, and I was really quite green about this side of the business. But I still think it was
the right choice to make. I'm still really glad I did it."
• Treats is at the Garrick, booking until 26 May. Box office: 0870 890 1104.
Mansfield Park is on ITV1 on Sunday at 9pm.
Source: The Evening Standard 12th March 2007