Geraldine McEwan obituary
A brilliant and fascinating exponent of high comedy and darkest drama
Saturday 31 January 2015 / http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/jan/31/geraldine-mcewan
Geraldine McEwan, who has died aged 82, could purr like a kitten, snap like a viper and, like Shakespeare’s Bottom, roar you as gently as any sucking dove. She was a brilliant, distinctive and decisive performer whose career incorporated high comedy on the West End stage, Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre, and a cult television following in EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia (1985-86).
She was also notable on television as a controversial Miss Marple in a series of edgy, incongruously outspoken Agatha Christie adaptations (2004-09). Inheriting a role that had already been inhabited at least three times “definitively” – by Margaret Rutherford, Angela Lansbury and Joan Hickson – she made of the deceptively cosy detective a character both steely and skittish, with a hint of lust about her, too.
This new Miss Marple was an open-minded woman of the world, with a back story that touched on a thwarted love affair with a married man who had been killed in the first world war. Familiar thrillers were given new plot twists, and there was even the odd sapphic embrace. For all her ingenuity and faun-like fluttering, McEwan was really no more successful in the part than was Julia McKenzie, her very different successor.
Although she was not easily confused with Maggie Smith, she often tracked her stylish contemporary, succeeding her in Peter Shaffer roles (in The Private Ear and The Public Eye in 1963, and in Lettice and Lovage in 1988) and rivalling Smith as both Millamant and Lady Wishfort in Congreve’s masterpiece The Way of the World in 1969 and 1995.
And a decade after Smith won her Oscar for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, McEwan scored a great success in the same role on television in 1978; Muriel Spark said that McEwan was her favourite Miss Brodie in a cluster that also included Vanessa Redgrave and Anna Massey.
McEwan was born in Old Windsor, where her father, Donald McKeown, was a printers’ compositor who ran the local branch of the Labour party in a Tory stronghold; her mother, Nora (nee Burns), came from a working-class Irish family. Geraldine was always a shy and private girl who found her voice, she said, when she stood up in school and read a poem.
She had won a scholarship to Windsor county girls’ school, but she felt out of place until she found refuge in the Windsor Rep at the Theatre Royal, where she played an attendant fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1946. After leaving school, she joined the Windsor company for two years in 1949, meeting there her life-long companion, Hugh Cruttwell, a former teacher turned stage manager, 14 years her senior, whom she married in 1953, and who became a much-loved and influential principal of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1965.
Without any formal training, McEwan went straight from Windsor to the West End, making her debut in Who Goes There? by John Deighton (Vaudeville, 1951), followed by an 18-month run in For Better, For Worse… (Comedy, 1952) and with Dirk Bogarde in Summertime, a light comedy by Ugo Betti (Apollo, 1955).
Summertime was directed by Peter Hall and had a chaotic pre-West End tour, Bogarde’s fans mobbing the stage door every night and in effect driving him away from the theatre for good; McEwan told Bogarde’s biographer, John Coldstream, how he was both deeply encouraging to her and deeply conflicted over his heartthrob star status.
Within a year she made her Stratford debut as the Princess of France in Love’s Labour’s Lost and played opposite Olivier in John Osborne’s The Entertainer, replacing Joan Plowright as Jean Rice when the play moved from the Royal Court to the Palace. Like Ian Holm and Diana Rigg, she was a key agent of change in the transition from the summer Stratford festival – playing Olivia, Marina and Hero in the 1958 season – to Peter Hall’s new Royal Shakespeare Company; at Stratford in 1961, she played Beatrice to Christopher Plummer’s Benedick and Ophelia to Ian Bannen’s Hamlet.
Kittenish and playful, with a wonderful gift for suggesting hurt innocence with an air of enchanted distraction, she was a superb Lady Teazle in a 1962 Haymarket production of The School for Scandal, also starring John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, that went to Broadway in early 1963, her New York debut.
She returned to tour in the first, disastrous, production of Joe Orton’s Loot, with Kenneth Williams, in 1965, and then joined Olivier’s National at the Old Vic, where parts over the next five years included Raymonde Chandebise in Jacques Charon’s landmark production of Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear, Alice in Strindberg’s Dance of Death (with Olivier and Robert Stephens), Queen Anne in Brecht’s Edward II, Victoria (“a needle-sharp gold digger” said one reviewer) in Somerset Maugham’s Home and Beauty, Millamant, and Vittoria Corombona in The White Devil.
Back in the West End, she formed a classy quartet, alongside Pat Heywood, Albert Finney and Denholm Elliott, in Peter Nichols’s Chez Nous at the Globe (1974), and gave a delightful impression of a well-trained, coquettish poodle as the leisured whore in Noël Coward’s broken-backed adaptation of Feydeau, Look After Lulu, at Chichester and the Haymarket.
In the 1980s, she made sporadic appearances at the National, now on the South Bank, winning two Evening Standard awards for her fresh and youthful Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals (“Men are all Bavarians,” she exclaimed on exiting, creating a brand new malapropism for “barbarians”) and her hilariously acidulous Lady Wishfort; and was a founder member of Ray Cooney’s Theatre of Comedy at the Shaftesbury theatre.
Geraldine McEwan: mischievously witty, from Mrs Malaprop to Miss Marple
In the latter part of her stage career, she seemed to cut loose in ever more adventurous directions, perhaps through her friendship with Kenneth Branagh, who had become very close to Cruttwell while studying at Rada. She was a surprise casting as the mother of a psychotic son who starts behaving like a wolf, played by Will Patton, in Sam Shepard’s merciless domestic drama, A Lie of the Mind, at the Royal Court in 1987. And in 1988 she directed As You Like It for Branagh’s Renaissance Theatre Company, Branagh playing Touchstone as an Edwardian music-hall comedian.
The following year she directed Christopher Hampton’s under-rated Treats at the Hampstead theatre and, in 1998, formed a fantastical nonagenarian double act with Richard Briers in a Royal Court revival, directed by Simon McBurney, of Ionesco’s tragic farce The Chairs, her grey hair bunched on one side like superannuated candy floss.
She was a brilliant but controversial Judith Bliss in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever (1999), directed as a piece of Gothic absurdism at the Savoy by Declan Donnellan; McEwan tiptoed through the thunderclaps and lightning like a glinting harridan, a tipsy bacchanalian with a waspish lust and highly cultivated lack of concern (“My husband’s not dead; he’s upstairs.”)
Other television successes included Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1990), playing Jeanette Winterson’s mother, and an adaptation of Nina Bawden’s tale of evacuees in Wales, Carrie’s War (2004). Her occasional movie appearances included Cliff Owen’s The Bawdy Adventures of Tom Jones (1975), two of Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations – Henry V (1989) and Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000) – as well as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991); Peter Mullan’s devastating critique of an Irish Catholic education, The Magdalene Sisters (2002), in which she played cruel, cold-hearted Sister Bridget; and Vanity Fair (2004).
McEwan was rumoured to have turned down both being appointed OBE and a damehood, but never confirmed this.
Hugh died in 2002. She is survived by their two children, Greg and Claudia, and seven grandchildren.
• Geraldine McEwan (McKeown), actor, born 9 May 1932; died 30 January 2015