Kara Tointon has a bounciness that even four years of playing Dawn Swann in the interminably miserable soap EastEnders couldn’t suppress. When we meet, the 2010 Strictly Come Dancing winner can’t help but giggle with excitement as she talks about her latest starring role, in an Alan Ayckbourn play, and claims she is lucky to have got it.
Yet she shouldn’t be surprised by her rapid return to the West End. Last year, Tointon wowed the critics as Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, winning greater accolades on her stage debut than those bestowed on her two experienced co-stars, Dame Diana Rigg and Rupert Everett. “Luminous and refreshing”, “terrific”, “remarkably assured” and “oozing natural stage presence”, the critics wrote of her performance.
“Eliza was a dream role,” she says. “I loved My Fair Lady as a child and Eliza is a great character who changes so much in the course of the play. I look back now and can’t quite believe I did it.”
But clearly the stage bug has bitten and Tointon relishes the very different challenge that Absent Friends presents. The 1974 play centres on a group of suburban friends who gather at a tea party that Diana (Katherine Parkinson from The IT Crowd) has arranged to cheer up one of her husband Paul’s old friends, Colin (Reece Shearsmith from The League of Gentlemen), who is recently bereaved. Tointon plays the blunt and sullen Evelyn – the young wife of another friend, John – who has had an affair with Paul (Steffan Rhodri from Gavin and Stacey).
It requires a very different performance from her turn in Pygmalion, says Tointon. “In that, I was on stage all the time and it was full-on, but here I spend a lot of time being silent. But my goodness when Evelyn does say something, you remember it. You can pitch the one-liners in so many ways, but once you’ve said them, they’re gone, so they have to be just right.
“There’s a lot of non-acting acting, as it were, so the challenge is in the nothingness, of not reacting but allowing the audience to see what is going on in Evelyn’s head. She clearly has a chip on her shoulder, but she’s the one honest person who doesn’t feel the need to go along with the social niceties and I really like that.”
Tointon is the elder of two daughters (her sister, Hannah, is also an actress and has appeared in Hollyoaks and The Inbetweeners); their father was an accountant and they attended a private school in Essex.
“My parents wanted the best for us,” she says, “but school was never my thing. I loved all the extra-curricular stuff like gymnastics and drama.”
She was signed to the influential Sylvia Young Agency, but didn’t attend its school. “Acting was a hobby for me, and even when I got a role in Teachers [the Channel 4 sitcom starring Andrew Lincoln] when I was 16, I didn’t really know for sure it would be my career.”
A keen artist like her father – she works in acrylic, painting mostly abstracts, and says “I usually have something on the go” – Tointon was all set to do an art course before going to drama school. But she kept being offered work, and then EastEnders came along. “Soap is great training, because it’s so fast. Of course, you think, 'Oh I could have done that better’, but you try to do that next time round.”
Tointon didn’t work for a year after leaving EastEnders, and says: “I had lost all my confidence in acting because the prejudice against it [soaps] is so great. All I was being asked to do was Dawn-type roles. I had known that but it was a shock.”
Does she regret taking the role as Dawn, which she has said she may go back to? “Oh no, I loved working on EastEnders and made some great friends. I think in hindsight sometimes you wish you’d done things differently or at a different point in your career, but opportunities come up and you take them.”
And then came Strictly, which she initially turned down. “Later I thought, why not? I loved doing dance classes as a kid and it always looks like people on it are having such fun. I certainlydid.”
She went on to win the series with Artem Chigvintsev (who became her partner off-screen, too) as the public voted not just for her dancing, I suspect, but also because she came across as a genuinely nice person.
Pygmalion’s producers were watching, asked Tointon to audition for Eliza and the rest is history. But in that fallow acting year after EastEnders, she also made a well-received BBC documentary, Don’t Call Me Stupid, about dyslexia.
“I was diagnosed at seven, which is very early, so I was lucky,” she says. “What shocked me is that little has really progressed since my day and it’s important that we educate people about it. There are different methods of teaching, for instance, that all kids would benefit from.” She now works with dyslexia and learning-needs charities.
So what next — soap, dancing, documentaries or stage, perhaps even Shakespeare? “Well, first I’d like to keep on working, full stop,” Tointon says with a laugh. “But, of course, all actors want to do Shakespeare because it’s such a challenge to get right. I love theatre and I’m loving every minute of it. I’m in my element.”