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on Wed, 04 Jan 2017
Stuck at home alone each night while her husband, Jack, goes out on the town, Bella Manningham struggles to make sense of the strange things happening around her. As objects suddenly vanish, mysterious footsteps patter overhead and the gaslight flickers disconcertingly in the living room, are there supernatural forces at work in Bella's life, or is her mind beginning to fail her, and can she really rely on the evidence of her own senses?
Embarking on a UK tour more than 75 years after its debut, Patrick Hamilton's thrilling Gaslight is still guaranteed to leave audiences on the edge of their seats. Reinvented in a new production by Anthony Banks, this genre-defining play arrives at Birmingham's New Alexandra theatre this week, starring Kara Tointon as the story's unsettled heroine. We spoke to Tointon to find out more about the show and her career so far.
“At the time this came up, I really wanted to do some theatre, and this is such a unique play, and an entirely different role to anything I've done before, so I was really excited about it,” she explains. “It's rare to find such a great, female-led piece of writing, and textually it's fantastic – I was gripped within the first few pages!”
Since its first staging in 1938, the play has become something of an icon of 20th century theatre, and in the 1940s, two big screen adaptations – particularly the MGM film starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman – firmly cemented its place in popular culture. Later, in the 1960s, the word “gaslighting” began to enter common parlance as a term to describe the kind of psychological manipulation and abuse to which Bella is subjected in the play.
“Bella is a young woman who has been married for about seven years, but at this point, she finds herself falling victim to her husband who is slowly but surely manipulating her mentally to the point that she thinks she's going mad. It's a really interesting subject, and it's amazing that this piece of writing actually inspired a new word that's entered the dictionary.”
Though made famous through productions during the mid-20th century, the play is actually set in 1880, amidst the atmospheric smog of Victorian London. What we see in Banks' new version, however, is confined to the four walls of the Manninghams' not so happy home, with designer David Woodhead seeking to reflect Bella's turbulent state of mind through his claustrophobic set.
“One of my favourite parts of doing a show is when you get to see your set, and for this they've made it all feel very contained. It's got that kind of spooky element of Victorian London, but then there are other features that heighten the sense of being boxed in. Bella is living a life where she's almost held prisoner in her own home, and the set kind of comes out at the audience so you're immersed and you feel like you're in it.”
Having recently appeared in Pygmalion on stage and in TV series like Mr Selfridge, Tointon is no stranger to period drama, though she remains best known for her role as Dawn Swann in EastEnders and as the 2010 winner of Strictly Come Dancing. So how does donning a period frock compare to the glitz and glamour of her Strictly outfits?
“It's definitely a completely different sort of costume – no glitter or sparkles anywhere!” she laughs. “I think it's so much fun to be able to dress up, and especially when you're doing a period piece, it really helps you to enter this whole new world that's been created through the costumes and the staging and the make-up and everything.
“I love doing period pieces because there's something about the pacing of it that's slightly different,” she adds. “In everyday life now everything has got to be fast and it's all about how quickly we can gather information and speak to all the people and all of that stuff, whereas when you're doing a period piece, you get to just slow down and enjoy it a bit.”
In addition to wowing the Strictly judges with her dancing and making a name for herself as a promising young acting talent, Tointon also got to show off her impressive singing skills in ITV's The Sound of Music Live! But despite the fact that her sister Hannah is also an actor, she claims her own performing career was more a happy accident than a long-term ambition.
“I struggled quite a bit at school and had quite low self-esteem because of that, so my parents wanted to find hobbies that would help me to find my feet and excel, and it kind of just developed from there. My sister and I are very different, but we always enjoyed the same hobbies, and I think my parents thought that us going to auditions would be really good experience for us going into job interviews later on. I never dreamed that I'd go into this as a profession, but now I don't know anything else, so I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have this!”
Those struggles at school were partly down to her dyslexia, which she has since been very open in discussing, even appearing in a documentary series about the condition called Don't Call Me Stupid in 2010. Reading and memorising scripts can thus be a challenging part of the job, but over the course of her career, Tointon has learned a range of tricks and techniques to help her.
“I have so many little ways of making life easier. One of them is that I have these glasses with coloured green lenses that make reading a bit more comfortable. I've always loved reading: English Literature was one of my favourite subjects at school. And then there are different learning mechanisms – so I'll go around the house with post-its and stick a line of dialogue on the table and on the settee, and slowly the colour and the movement help the lines go in. But once you meet the other actors it becomes much easier because you're bouncing off someone – it's only difficult when you're trying to learn at home on your own.”
In recent years, Tointon has appeared in a number of West End productions, but Gaslight will mark her first stage appearance in Birmingham.
“I'm really excited about it – I love Birmingham and we actually kick off our tour here so I'm looking forward to it. I don't know it very well yet but a lot of people have already made dinner recommendations so I'll definitely be trying out a few things!”
Gaslight is at the New Alexandra Theatre Friday 6 – Saturday 14 January.