Kara Tointon discusses 'Gaslight', her latest play on at the moment in Cambridge
One of the best-known thrillers of all time, Gaslight is a masterpiece of suspenseful playwriting that has had audiences at Cambridge Arts Theatre this week on the edge of their seats.
So iconic is Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 tale of perceived mental instability that it has given rise to the verb ‘gaslight’ (to manipulate someone through psychological means into doubting their own sanity).
The story is set in 1880 fog-bound London and centres on upper middle class Jack Manningham and his wife, Bella, who is at home alone every night while her husband is out on the town. She can’t explain the disappearance of familiar objects, the mysterious footsteps overhead or the ghostly flickering of the living room gaslight.
Is she losing her mind? Do these strange goings-on exist in her imagination or are dark secrets lurking in her home? The arrival of a retired detective leads to a shocking discovery that will shake her respectable marriage to its core.
Bella is played in this touring production by Kara Tointon, the former EastEnders actress and 2010 Strictly Come Dancing champion who has since received critical acclaim for her West End performance of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion.
Her stage credits also include London revivals of Alan Ayckbourn’s Absent Friends and Relatively Speaking, while her TV CV features The Sound of Music Live! and Mr Selfridge.
“I read the script having known nothing about it,” said the 33-year-old. “I haven’t seen the films and I hadn’t read the play. I just thought it was textually rich and a great female character to get my teeth into. The last few plays I’ve done have been comedies and I thought this was a little bit different, a little bit darker.”
“I’ve really enjoyed the challenge. It was an interesting period rehearsing over Christmas and we all, as a cast, went through moments of not being too sure about it – it wasn’t until we got to Birmingham for our first week on January 3 that it all came together.”
Gaslight was adapted for the big screen twice during the war: the 1940 British film, starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard, adheres more closely to the play than the more famous 1944 MGM version, which starred Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten and an 18-year-old Angela Lansbury in her screen debut.
“It’s a really unusual piece,” said Kara, who first came to TV viewers’ attention when she played Dawn Swann in BBC soap EastEnders from 2005 to 2009.
“I think, as a society, we love a whodunit. This isn’t your normal whodunit because it’s psychological, and I like it because it’s not what you expect.
“You realise how psychologically you can damage someone so profoundly with silly little things. We’re so busy with our agendas and we maybe do a very small amount of gaslighting in everyday life without realising it. Obviously, in the play it’s to an extreme level. But it does leave you thinking.”
Tointon believes anyone who sees the play – in which Jack Manningham is played by Rupert Young and Detective Rough by Keith Allen – will not be disappointed.
“It’s one of those plays that can be done in many different ways,” she said, “and although we’re talking about a very serious subject, there’s a lot of light in it and a lot of funny moments. It’s the perfect time of year for it, too, because it’s set in the winter months.”
What drew Kara to the part of Bella?
“Ideally, when you go into the acting profession, it’s nice to try to do something different with each part you take on,” she explained. “You could approach the part of Bella from a very weak wallflower point of view, but I think she’s got guts and she’s not easily put down – she’s actually a young woman who is looking really optimistically on her life and is trying to make the best of everything. She’s a deep but fun character who is being completely torn apart.”
Tointon, who has performed in Cambridge once before, can currently be seen on Monday nights in ITV’s eight-part period drama The Halcyon, which is set in 1940 and focuses on a five-star hotel at the centre of London society and a world at war. She plays singer Betsey Day.
This first series – which has previously been described as a “sexier Downton Abbey” – has been a success, so are there plans for a second?
“To be honest, I don’t know yet! I think it’s just getting warmed up. It takes a while to set up the characters, and I think with any show it’s always best to go in with a neutral mindset, where you take it for what it is.
“I think when any show has comparisons put on it before it’s even started, it’s annoying because you’re suddenly watching something with another show in mind, when actually it’s meant to be simply what it’s meant to be.
“But I’ve really enjoyed it and I’d love it if they did another series.”
Gaslight is on at the Arts Threatre, Cambridge, until Saturday (February 18) at 7.45pm, with a matinee on Saturday at 2.30pm. Tickets: £18/£28/£33/£38. All prices include £3 booking fee. Box office: 01223 50333 or cambridgeartstheatre.com.