Kara Tointon: I was so naïve that I thought that the critics were kind to everyone.

She might be a relative novice, but Kara Tointon is already making her mark on the stage. She talks to Phil Penfold.

Kara Tointon is about to appear on stage in Yorkshire in Gaslight.
Kara Tointon is about to appear on stage in Yorkshire in Gaslight.

For someone with hardly any professional stage experience until her mid-twenties, Kara Tointon has certainly come a long way. It is only a couple of years since she took the West End by storm in a revival of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Then came new productions of Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends and Relatively Speaking, with one critic observing “there are few more exciting actresses working on the West End stage”.

Now Tointon is about to undertake her first full-scale British tour in Patrick Hamilton’s brooding psychological play Gaslight and she admits that she has learnt a lot since then.

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“Those reviews were really lovely. Great confidence boosters. But, honestly, I was so naïve that I thought that the critics were kind like that to everyone. It is only now, in retrospect, that I realise that I should have been very, very grateful indeed.”

Kara Tointon as Betsy in The Halcyon. ITV Pictures.

What impressed her more at the time was that Sir Alan not only came along to the rehearsals, but also didn’t balk when asked if he minded if they cut a couple of lines.

“Can you imagine? Someone said to me the other day that that was a bit like walking into a church and offering to re-write the Bible! There were just a couple of references that were dated and which an audience of today probably wouldn’t ‘get’. And Sir Alan said that he completely agreed.

“If I ever got the call to turn up at Scarborough, I’d drop everything. No question. I’d love to be directed by him. Sir Alan’s lines have such a wonderful flow to them, and above anything else, he writes the truth.”

Tointon – Essex born and raised – has her feet very much on the ground. While at 33, her career is off on a trajectory, she picks her projects very carefully.

Kara Tointon as Betsy in The Halcyon. ITV Pictures.

“Eliza was a good role to start me off and the Ayckbourn plays were excellent stepping stones to increasing my confidence. And now I’m interested to discover what touring is all about. Alright, it’s only really for just over two months, but we do take in some very special places – like York and Sheffield.”

She was deeply intrigued by the idea of reviving a play that was first produced with enormous success in 1938, and then made twice into films. One was a British version, starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard, and then came a Hollywood ‘take’ on the story, with MGM, featuring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman.

“I haven’t seen either of them in full and neither do I want to,” says Tointon. “Not until our run has finished in March. I’ve seen a couple of clips, and that’s all. I just want my own view on it.”

Gaslight is set in 1880 and Tointon plays Bella Manningham, an upper-middle-class woman married to an overbearing husband who flirts with the servants. He has a habit of disappearing every evening, and criticises her more and more for her apparent lapses of memory. And then things start to go missing from the home. Are the domestics guilty of theft, or is Bella slowly losing her reason?

“She is suffering psychological abuse, and being forced into a corner where she starts to doubt herself,” says Tointon of the role. “She’s a strong young woman, but then she is thrown this curve-ball by a husband who at first appears to be a fantastic catch. Her self-esteem is in tatters and her self-doubt almost completely takes her over.”

Tointon says the play has never been more relevant. “I’ve read quite a lot about the history of the period, and Hamilton sets it in the time that he does quite deliberately, because it wasn’t so long after the Married Woman’s Property Act was passed. Until that was put into law, if you married a man, everything you owned instantaneously belonged to him. A married woman was, in effect, the ‘property’ of her husband.

“Unbelievable today, of course, but just think of the thousands of women back then whose fortunes were absorbed by getting married to men who were, purely and simply, on the make. And we slowly learn, in Gaslight, that Jack Manningham has a very interesting past. It’s very dark, very gritty and, I think, really gripping. Above all, it is great storytelling.”

It could hardly be more different than playing Maria in The Sound of Music, which was another recent notch on the CV.

“That is one of the main reasons for my wanting to do it. I don’t want to be always known as ‘That girl who just does X, or Y’. Besides, it would bore me rigid. I am a getter-upper and a do-er, not someone who sits still. I admit it – I have a very short attention span. Possibly the shortest of anyone I know.”

She puts that down, in part, to being dyslexic, a condition that was discovered when she was at school, and which she has now conquered through a series of techniques.

“I want people to know that a dyslexia diagnosis is not the end of the world, that sufferers can be helped. It may seem odd to a lot of people that someone with dyslexia should want to be an actor, whose world is words, but I think that my passion for communication was, in fact, a great help to me”.

Her parents, Ken and Carol, thought that both their daughters (Tointon has a sister, Hannah) were doing well at school, until an observant teacher realised that while one was forging ahead with her classwork, the other was lagging “several books behind everyone else”.

“We tried just about every technique that was on offer, and it all finally resulted in my reading with glasses which have green lenses. Don’t believe me? Look, here they are!” She rummages in a large handbag and producing a pair of frames which look like something Bette Davis would have worn by the pool at the Beverly Hilton in the 1930s.

“The main thing is that for me, they work,” she laughs. “Without them, I stumble along a line. With them, my reading flows. I remember the first time I used them in class, and all the other kids thought ‘Oh God, here we go again, daft Kara taking up all the time’. And then I just read naturally, and you could hear jaws dropping.”

Tointon is so passionate about bringing dyslexia into the spotlight that she even fronted a BBC documentary called Kara Tointon: Don’t Call Me Stupid, in which she, her sister and leading experts in the field discussed the condition. “I really didn’t like the title,” she admits, “but if it made anyone stop, switch on, and get some idea of what those of us with it go through, then it achieved its purpose.”

If Gaslight will take her across the UK, then her most recent television job allowed her to stay nearer to her current home in North London. She plays the singer Betsey Day in ITV’s new eight-part series The Halcyon, which is set in an ultra-posh London hotel at the outbreak of the Second World War. “Another period piece, but I loved making it. Betsey is a lovely part, very vivacious and outgoing, but with a few secrets in her past. What impressed me about making it all was the teamwork and the professionalism that went into every second of it.

“And I got to sing with a real, live band. I went to orchestral recordings, met the players, rehearsed with them, did the lot. Such fun.”

So does Tointon, a self-confessed female whirlwind ever relax? “I do, but even then I’m active”, she says, “Because I love to paint. Mainly abstracts. That takes some energy as well. Oh, and I love my food. Now that’s another good reason for a tour – finding out precisely where the best Indian restaurants are...”

■ Gaslight is at the Grand Opera House, York, January 30 to February 4, 0844 871 3024; Sheffield Lyceum from February 20 to 25, 0114 249 6000.