She’s conquered soaps, stage, and Strictly. Now Kara Tointon is stepping back in time as a Victorian heroine.
Words: Philip Ellis
Known to millions as Eastenders’ headstrong Dawn Swann, Kara Tointon won over a whole new host of fans when she pranced her way to victory on the eighth series of Strictly Come Dancing. But since then, away from the cameras, she has received critical acclaim treading the boards, including taking on beloved characters such as Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion.
Now she’s busy getting under the skin of her next character; Bella Manningham, the troubled heroine of Patrick Hamilton’s chilling Victorian drama Gaslight. “It’s not your normal whodunit; it’s a psychological thriller,” Kara explains. “We see Bella, who’s a really strong young woman, being manipulated and starting to doubt her own memory and her sanity.”
I meet Kara at the New Alexandra Theatre, where Gaslight will begin its run in January. It’s part of her whistle-stop tour of Birmingham; before being whisked away for a photo shoot, she talks excitedly about what first attracted her to the play. “I was hooked within pages,” she enthuses. “For a female character written at that time to be so strong — it’s a great part.”
It’s something, as an actress, that Kara finds fascinating; how female characters are often shaped by time period far more than their male counterparts. “One of the plays I did recently was set in the 70s,” she recalls, “and even since then, in that short amount of time, the dynamic between men and women has changed dramatically.”
The Victorian upper-class backdrop of Gaslight well and truly sets the tone for Bella’s storyline; for the first time in history, ownership and control of an estate could legally pass to a woman upon her husband’s death. This might not sound like such a big deal nowadays, but back then, fear of female independence was rife, and led to many men declaring their female relatives “hysterical” or mentally unfit to inherit. These rising tensions between the sexes are at the heart of Hamilton’s script.
Fortunately, a history lesson isn’t required to enjoy the show. “We want to make it fresh and modern,” says Kara. Gaslight might have been written in 1938, and set in 1880, but she believes that the story and its themes are just as relevant today. The play at its core is about a marriage where one party holds all of the control, and the other is powerless. Kara points out that, while the circumstances might not be so dramatic in real life, this is still a situation far too many people can relate to.
“We talk a lot about physical abuse in relationships, but not mental abuse,” she says, referring to the insidious psychological games that take place throughout the narrative (Hamilton’s play actually inspired the term ‘gaslighting’). “People are going through this all the time,” she adds; “they might not even realise they’re being manipulated in a certain way.”
After garnering rave reviews in Absent Friends and Relatively Speaking, both comedies by Alan Ayckbourn, Gaslight offers both a change of pace and an exciting new challenge. “From a comedy point of view, playing the truth is always funnier; as soon as you start to ham it up it’s not funny any more.” Kara hopes to bring the same truth to Gaslight, albeit while striking a much more sombre tone. “With straight theatre, that’s the art of it,” she says. “Finding your moments, and having little twists, so it’s not bland or one-noted. You need the light and the shade.”
And after her all-singing, all-dancing turn in The Sound Of Music Live, playing a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown will be draining in an entirely different way. “When it’s physical, it feels easier because you’re mixing it up a bit; you’ve got your song, then dialogue, then a dance, it keeps it varied. That’s always my worry with doing something straight; it’s asking a lot of the audience to be enthralled. You’ve got to keep them engaged.”
Of course, keeping audiences engaged shouldn’t be too much of a concern for an actress who has been described as a “luminous” and “exciting” talent by West End critics. In fact, Kara has pretty much excelled in any role, although she tends to be cast as likeable characters fairly frequently. Which is hardly surprising; she exudes an easy charm that immediately puts people at their ease.
“It’s fun to play the bitch, as it were, because you get to do something that in real life would be outrageous,” she says. “Even if you’re a dark character, you have to make the audience like you. But I think playing ‘nice’ is always harder, to create a whole character when you’re just playing an ordinary person.”
They don’t come much nicer than Eliza Doolittle or Maria Von Trapp; did she feel apprehensive at all, stepping into such big shoes? “Of course when you think of Eliza you think of Audrey Hepburn, and with Maria you think of Julie Andrews. I was one of those people who thought ‘never touch this’ — but then selfishly I did.” She laughs. “You just have to block those voices and insecurities out, otherwise nobody would play these roles again, and that would be a real shame.”
Much like Maria and Eliza, the female lead in Gaslight has been played by a number of actresses through the years, most notably Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 big screen adaptation. But Kara is looking forward to making the part her own. Bella is alone on-stage for much of the performance; an ideal actress’s showcase.
Kara’s co-stars are Merlin’s Rupert Young, who plays Jack Manningham, Bella’s husband, and Keith Allen as Detective Rough. “It’s very intense with it being such a small cast,” she says. “I think having that dynamic, with just three main characters, you’re able to really bounce off each other.”
I ask her how preparing for a play like Gaslight compares to the days when she would memorise scripts for EastEnders. “You initially think ‘I don’t know how we’re going to do it,” she says, “when, oddly, you have more time than you ever have when you’re filming.” Of course, unlike on TV, in live theatre anything can and will happen. “Most of the time when things go wrong, the audience never even notices,” she says. “But for you, it feels horrendous.”
This is where having such a small company of actors can be a godsend, she says. “I always hoped I would be the one to help save the moment if someone struggled. Some days you’re on it, and you can improvise and help your fellow cast members. Other days,” she shrugs, “they’re the ones saving you.” She’s being modest, of course. Something tells me this heroine doesn’t need much saving.
Gaslight begins its nationwide tour at Birmingham’s New Alexandra Theatre on 6th January 2017.
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