Obituary: Joan White

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
JOAN WHITE, stylish and versatile, and an especially gifted exponent of the vanishing art of high comedy, would surely have had an even more prestigious career had she had fewer strings to her bow - she produced, directed and taught besides - and had she at the height of her career based herself more in the British theatre.

Born in Alexandria in 1909 but educated in Britain at St Helen's School in Northwood, Middlesex, she had early theatrical leanings and after Rada had a vital first chance in 1929 at the then highly adventurous Festival Theatre, Cambridge, under Tyrone Guthrie as Azorah in James Bridie's Tobias and the Angel (Bridie was to remain a favourite writer - she appeared later in his Burke and Hare play The Anatomist in Guthrie's flickeringly atmospheric production, and in the title role of Susannah and the Elders).

Much of her early work was in the more adventurous theatre of the time; a challenging 1933 Westminster Theatre season included an early British production of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, in which she played the Assistant Stage Manager. Exciting experimental work was in much smaller supply at a time when London had little to compare with the scale of the modern fringe and White also served her time in the more genteel world of 1930s commercial theatre, much of it in catchpenny work but with occasional showy roles such as the winsome Bella in Rudolf Besier's 1930s blockbuster The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Piccadilly, 1935). She also played Phoebe in the over-decorative Paul Czinner movie of As You Like It (1936), starring Elisabeth Bergner and Laurence Olivier.

She retired from the stage following her second marriage and the births of two daughters for a period during the Second World War, returning in a piece of mindless Broadway froth, Junior Miss (Saville, 1943). A better role followed in Walter Greenwood's loving and sturdy Lancashire comedy The Cure for Love (Westminster, 1945).

The post-war years developed into a golden era for the British repertory system, led by a generation of energetic younger talent prior to the rise of television. At the Birmingham Rep in 1949 White had a superb run of parts, ranging from a majestic Duchess of York in Richard III to a gloriously batty Madame Maniefa in Rodney Ackland's Gogol adaptation The Diary of a Scoundrel.

Even more impressive was her work at the Bristol Old Vic in the 1950- 51 season, the first under its new director Denis Carey; its company then included John Neville, Donald Pleasence, Lally Bowers, Stuart Burge and Donald Sinden. During this outstanding season, White's appearances included a delightfully garrulous Mistress Quickly in The Merry Wives of Windsor, one of the first repertory productions of Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning (the relatively small but telling role of Margaret Devize, in which she handled the spring- morning music of Fry's verse beautifully) and a brilliant farce performance in Pinero's The Magistrate, as Agatha Posket, married to the pillar of respectability of the title and trapped in a lie about her age. Donald Sinden, matching her in comedic invention, as the more-than- adolescent stepson forced to pretend he is only 14.

At Bristol she also played Mrs Candour in The School for Scandal, her voice curdling from assumed concern to acidulated malice within a sentence, and perhaps most memorably, a finely etched Julia Shuttlewaite, out of T.S. Eliot's Furies, in The Cocktail Party, with Donald Pleasence as the Unidentified Guest in Carey's compelling production in a setting disturbingly evocative of a birdcage.

Her subsequent British work included one of her outstanding roles - the faded but irrepressibly gallant Lady Kitty in Maugham's best comedy of manners, The Circle (Manchester, 1953) and, in the West End, Miss Marcy in the surprisingly unsuccessful version of Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle (Aldwych, 1956).

The focus of her career shifted to North America thereafter - encouraged by Guthrie, always a champion of pastures new and of regional theatre - initially in 1956 with her appointment as Director of the Trans-Canada Theatre Company. Her work for the company for the next two years was based in London, Ontario, and included the direction of many plays, mostly popular comedies, with occasional acting appearances including the flustered society wife in The Reluctant Debutante (1957).

She made her US debut taking over Mrs Higgins in the touring company of My Fair Lady (1958). Throughout the 1960s she was phenomenally busy, mostly in American regional and stock theatres. With her third husband, the director and designer Robert Grose, she co- presented over 50 productions between 1960 and 1964 at the Berkshire Playhouse (including a musical version of Lady Audley's Secret which she co-authored with the diseuse Anna Russell), fitting in sporadic New York performances including an off-Broadway Trelawny of the Wells as the ageing actress Mrs Telfer (Master Theatre, New York, 1961) and the Broadway production of A Passage to India (Ambassador, New York, 1962). She also appeared on US television in several Hallmark Hall of Fame productions.

A welcome return to the UK saw her back in British repertory, at Nottingham Playhouse in 1968, then at a high point under Stuart Burge. Her parts included Eleanor in King John, a stoically careworn Paulina in The Seagull and another Mrs Candour, again dripping cloaked venom, like prussic acid on sugar cubes, in Jonathan Miller's pox-and-all reappraisal of The School for Scandal.

Back in the US, she joined the faculty of the Drama School of the University of Washington in 1969 for a six-year period, during which time she also directed and acted for various Seattle companies. She made a redoubtable landlady to the deluded Rolfe in Hadrian VII and a touching Aunt Perriman in Ruth Goetz's The Heiress, adapted from Henry James's Washington Square (both at Seattle Rep, 1970).

Approaching old age, she concentrated her still formidably energies on the acting school she formed in 1975, initially in Seattle and then, after she returned to London in 1982, at her Chelsea flat. She proved to be as incisive and inspiring a teacher as she had been actor and director, impressing students with her passionate sense of discipline and her always stylish aplomb. She was still on occasion acting on television into her eighties, most memorably in 1986 with a vivid cameo role in Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective.

Joan White, actress: born Alexandria, Egypt 3 December 1909; married first J.V. Beanes (marriage dissolved), second A.P. Moore (two daughters; marriage dissolved), third Robert Grose (marriage dissolved); died London 8 June 1999.