Dulcie Gray: Actress whose celebrated career stretched across eight decades

 

Dulcie Gray's career was inextricably bound up with that of her husband, Michael Denison, with whom she appeared on stage in numerous productions. Unusually – but appositely – their last joint appearance was one of their most successful; both were in the original cast of producer Bill Kenwright's successful revival of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, directed by Peter Hall; in 1996 they made their New York debuts, touching 80, in the play's Broadway production to great acclaim.

Born in Kuala Lumpur to an expatriate family, Dulcie Gray was educated back in England, training for the stage at the Webber Douglas school. She found work immediately after leaving, playing the daughter in Noël Coward's comedy of theatrical bad manners, Hay Fever (Aberdeen, 1939). She was under contract to the HM Tennent Company – which included Denison – in Edinburgh and Glasgow in 1940 and then worked for a season in 1941 at the Harrogate Repertory Company.

Her first London appearance was at the Open Air Theatre Regent's Park (of which she and Denison remained lifelong champions), playing Maria in Twelfth Night and a feisty Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream (both 1942). Her success there led to her casting as Alexandra Giddens, daughter of the redoubtable Regina, in the UK premiere of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes (Piccadilly, 1942).

She scored a big success as the trusting Rose in the stage version of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock (Garrick, 1943) and now West End offers came thick and fast. Under John Gielgud's direction she appeared in Landslide (Westminster, 1943) an awkwardly Anglicised version of the French success Altitude 3200, the story of a group of young people marooned on a mountain. Gray was especially noticed for a touching performance as a girl with an incurable disease, loved by a student priest, who sacrifices herself to die in the snow.

Together with Denison she had a big success in the two-hander The Four Poster (Ambassador's, 1958) by the Dutch actor-dramatist Jan de Hartog. The play, using the eponymous bed as setting throughout, traced in episodic style the ups and downs of a long and happy marriage, and its easy sentiment struck a chord with 1950s' audiences.

A less happy experience was the adaptation by veteran director Basil Dean of the George Grossmith classic Diary of a Nobody (Arts, 1954). Gray and George Benson were well cast as the Pooters, but the production was under-financed and chaotic, with Dean as director at his most tyrannically sadistic.

It was a relief to take refuge, under her husband's direction, as Marion, the heroine of her own play Love Affair (Lyric, Hammersmith 1956), but the gentle romance of the piece was not strong enough to take it on to commercial success. She and Denison had a rewarding association in the 1950s and 1960s with the Oxford Playhouse. They played Morrell and Candida (not perfect casting for her) in Frank Hauser's revival of Candida (1958, subsequently Piccadilly, 1960) which had a decent run, despite one of Kenneth Tynan's most acerbic notices for both production and central performances.

She continued in Shavian mode as Lady Utterword in Heartbreak House with Denison as Hector (Oxford and Wyndham's, 1961) and they continued their love affair with Shaw in Village Wooing (Hong Kong, 1962). In 1965 Gray and Denison appeared in their first An Ideal Husband (Strand) alongside several one-time stars of the British screen (Richard Todd and Margaret Lockwood included) as the Chilterns; hers was a particularly thankless role.

They were together again in a ponderous political drama, Number Ten (Strand, 1967). A triple bill of Shavian one-acters, including again Village Wooing (Fortune, 1970) could only manage a brief run, and Glen Byam Shaw's production of Ibsen's The Wild Duck (Criterion, 1970), with Gray and Denison as the Ekdals, was uncharacteristically leaden and was also a short-lived flop.

Far more rewarding was William Douglas-Home's defiantly light but sharply adroit Downing Street comedy At the End of The Day (Savoy, 1973). Cast as Mabel, wife of the Labour PM played by John Mills, Gray bore more than a passing resemblance to Mary Wilson and gave a slyly funny performance which ranks among her best work.

With few good new plays suitable for their partnership available, they often took to the road at home and overseas or appeared in starry revivals such as John Barton's production of The School For Scandal (Duke of York's, 1982) with Donald Sinden and Beryl Reid. Gray's Mrs Candour was a sharply vinegary study of social venom, her tongue suddenly lashing out unpredictably, like a snake's.

They were clearly delighted to be back in the spotlight as part of the strong company of Peter Hall's production of An Ideal Husband (originally at the Gielgud, 1993). Against Carl Toms' elegant sets, Gray was carapaced in lavish period gowns as the grand Lady Markby, delivering her lines with matching aplomb. When the show opened on Broadway she and Denison (whose final stage appearance it was) took to New York life like youngsters. After her husband's death, Gray kept working – on tour again – in Katie Johnson's old role in a stage version (none too satisfactory) of The Lady Killers (1999-2000). Her last screen role was in an episode of Doctors (2000).

She had a flourishing parallel career as a writer, not only with her ownplay but also with a series of tightly-plotted detective novels (some with a theatrical setting). In 2000 she published a lively and lucid short book on JB Priestley.

Alan Strachan

Dulcie Gray, actress and writer: born Kuala Lumpur 20 November 1915; married 1939 Michael Denison (died 1998); died Hillingdon, Middlesex 15 November 2011.

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