Obituary: Mary Kerridge

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS fitting that the funeral service for Mary Kerridge should be held in St George's Chapel, Windsor. For over half a century her career was inextricable linked with the Theatre Royal, Windsor, nestling in the shadow of Windsor Castle; her husband John Counsell ran it from 1938 to 1985 and Kerridge was a director of the theatre for even longer.

Moreover, the chapel houses the remains of another redoubtable and loyal woman - Elizabeth Woodville, the Queen Elizabeth whom Kerridge portrayed memorably with such aplomb and conviction in Richard III to Olivier's Richard in his powerfully cast 1956 film and later for the Old Vic Company opposite Paul Daneman's silkily volatile portrayal (1962).

Kerridge was London-born, educated at Highbury School and later at University College London, and although drawn to the theatre from childhood she briefly worked as a secretary and receptionist until, aged 20, she made her first professional appearance in that old repertory warhorse, The Late Christopher Bean, at the King's, Southsea.

She worked regularly thereafter in repertory theatre - Margate and Bath, both with flourishing companies in the 1930s - on tour and in the West End (including a small role in the surprisingly short-lived Edgar Wallace thriller The Squealer at the Strand in 1937) before her association with Windsor began.

John Counsell had refounded the repertory company at Windsor, a medium- sized (just over 650 seats), intimate and superbly designed auditorium, especially ideal for comedy, in 1938, when Mary Kerridge first worked there. They married in 1939 and although Counsell was absent during the war years in the army leaving his wife to cope with much of the administration, in the post-war era the theatre thrived - without subsidy - under Counsell's management (he also directed many of its productions) for nearly 50 years until a second stroke finally forced him to retire in 1985. Kerridge remained a director of the theatre controlling company until recently when, after financial problems, it was taken over and underwritten by the West End impresario Bill Kenwright.

Serving a solidly middle-class and affluent catchment area, the Theatre Royal tended to concentrate on comedies, whodunits and what used to be described as plays "for the tired businessman". However the repertoire also stretched to Shakespeare, Shaw and Pinter (the Windsor Caretaker was one of the earliest post-London productions) and the occasional wild card such as the smash-hit musical Grab me a Gondola (1956, subsequently transferring to the Lyric in the West End), a rare successful British satirical musical, spoofing film festival antics, complete with Rank-style starlets in fur bikinis with classical theatre aspirations.

The Counsells' marriage was a happy and devoted one; Kerridge was content to base her career as well as her domestic life at Windsor. She loved the building as much as he did and together they made it one of the most bandbox-trim and welcoming of regional theatres.

She acted in innumerable Windsor productions, often in now- forgotten hits of a vanished West End era. But the 1960s saw her in a glorious run of parts, all ideal casting for her stylish stage presence; they included a Mrs Malaprop of awesome command in The Rivals (1965) and, in her annus mirabilis, a throatily alluring but decidedly dangerous Mrs Cheveley, the best of Wilde's scarlet women, in An Ideal Husband (1968). In the same year she also played a superb Mrs Warren, the unrepentant brothel-keeper in Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession.

Her Judith Bliss in Coward's Hay Fever (also 1968) was one of her very best roles. As the retired star exiled to Cookham, she was orchidaceously theatrical, especially funny in the early scene with her hearty, hot-handed younger admirer, arranging herself on the sofa like some Madame Recamier of the Thames Valley as she constantly returned the conversation to the world of the stage and her past triumphs.

She also directed at Windsor and was crucial in the success of the Christmas pantomimes (their financial success was vital to each year's budget). These were a byword for high standards in repertory panto, with the emphasis on narrative and traditional company. Her scripts for Puss in Boots and Dick Whittington were especially strong.

Kerridge's work away from Windsor included a popular success in the convent drama Bonaventure (Vaude-ville, 1949) and the prestigious flop of Top of the Ladder (St James's, 1950), with John Mills, the sole play from Tyrone Guthrie, who also directed.

Pinero's His House in Order (New, 1951) gave her a showy opportunity, opposite Godfrey Tearle, as Nina, the rebellious second wife in a rigid Edwardian household. She received considerable praise for both Rosalind in As You Like It and her devotedly steadfast Imogen in Cymbeline (both at the Open Air, Regent's Park, 1952). Perhaps her best West End opportunity came when she played the ambiguous Anna - a tricky role to which she brought a touching vulnerability, in Anastasia (St James's, 1955). One of her later West End roles was in a peculiar play, The Roses are Real (Gaiety, Dublin 1963 and Vaudeville, 1964). Set in a lunatic asylum, the central character (seemingly surviving the war) was one Adolf Hitler, bizarrely interpreted by the outsize personality of Michael MacLammir, in full Leichner slap and apparently wearing a Fuhrer wig over his own toupee. As one critic wrote, "it made us look forward toward the time when Hitler gains a foothold in Christmas pantomime".

Kerridge put her own career on virtual hold to nurse her husband for several years following two strokes, turning down attractive offers (Mrs Higgins in a New York Pygmalion included) to be with him. After his death in 1987 she continued to work occasionally, enjoying a particularly happy time playing what she described "a red herring" in A Murder Has Been Announced for the BBC's Miss Marple television series.

Offstage as well as on, Kerridge was a woman of immense charm and grace, refreshingly apart from the hothouse gossip and occasional bitchiness of the theatre. Her humour was gentle, and she never resented being the subject of one of the theatre world's stock jokes involving Lilian Baylis, the dragon-lady of the Old Vic. It centred around the young Mary Kerridge, in the days of clipped vowels and cut-glass diction, arriving at the Old Vic for an audition with the great dame, who was abstracted as usual (Nervous Assistant: "Excuse me and sorry to interrupt, but there's a Miss Kerridge in the Dress Circle." Lilian Baylis: "Don't bother me now. Go and clear it up at once.")Mary Antoinette Kerridge, actress: born London 3 April 1914; married 1939 John Counsell (died 1987; two daughters); died 22 July 1999.