Obituary: Godfrey Kenton

GODFREY KENTON made his last appearance on the stage in Stairway to Heaven, a musical play, at the King's Head Theatre in Islington, on 21 November 1994, at the age of 92. His debut had been made at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, on 15 May 1922, so that this stalwart of the British stage contributed to it an astonishing 72 years of service. It was appropriate that his final appearance was as a messenger of God, because all his life he was blessed with one of the finest and most distinctive voices of his time.

Originally intended for a career in the Church, he duly studied for at theological college. However, the lure of the theatre was too strong and I doubt that he ever regretted his decision. Despite a career that had as many lows as highs in it, he must have been outstandingly handsome in his youth, for he maintained his good looks almost to the end of his life - at the age of nearly 90, he was still in fine fettle and looked at least 25 years younger.

After a period of study at Rada, and the usual round of smaller parts, he joined Lena Ashwell's company for two years as leading juvenile. He was with the Stratford-upon-Avon Festival company for two seasons in 1925 and 1926 playing second juvenile leads - these were still the days when actors were engaged to play a recognised "line" of parts, so that, if As You Like It was in the repertory, you knew that, as second juvenile, you would be playing Silvius and not Orlando.

Shakespeare, in fact, became the central passion of Kenton's professional life, and it would seem from his listings in Who's Who in the Theatre that he rarely turned down an opportunity to appear in any of the plays. It is worth noting that to have a specific career as a Shakespearean actor is not an option in the English theatre of the 1990s.

He appeared at the Old Vic in 1930 as Malcolm to John Gielgud's Macbeth and as Fenton in The Merry Wives of Windsor. He was Orsini in Twelfth Night at the gala opening of the rebuilt Sadler's Wells, and was therefore the first actor to speak in the new theatre. But, only two years later, the insecurities of the actor's life forced him to accept the small part of Poins in Henry IV part I with George Robey as Falstaff, at His Majesty's. In between these London appearances, he did seasons with the Birmingham and Northampton repertory companies and two Malvern Festivals, where the new plays of George Bernard Shaw were tried out. He appeared in the world premiere of Shaw's The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles and as Tom Wrench in Arthur Pinero's Trelawny of the "Wells".

A notable appearance was in the premiere of Rodney Ackland's fine play After October in 1936, but it was the 1937 Stratford season that brought him to real prominence - his parts included Oberon, Edgar to Randle Ayrton's Lear, and Laertes to the Hamlet of his contemporary Donald Wolfit, who was also playing Kent in King Lear. This became, after the Second World War, Wolfit's most admired role, and Kenton always maintained that many very touching details and general "business" were copied by Wolfit from Ayrton's great performance. Never mind, the point is Wolfit most certainly made them all his own. Kenton was in a particularly good position to judge this, as he later played Edmund to Wolfit's own King Lear.

Two months after the war started in 1939, Kenton played Brutus in a well- received modern dress production of Julius Caesar at the Embassy and His Majesty's. The Stratford season of 1940 saw him as Romeo, Mark Antony and Orsino, after which he joined the BBC for the duration of the war. He joined the Donald Wolfit Shakespeare company as the war was ending and toured all over the country.

Even Wolfit's sympathetic biographer, Ronald Harwood, likened the atmosphere in the company to that of a concentration camp, but, according to Kenton, he was more or less left to get on with it, and he soon accustomed himself to the Stygian gloom allotted to the supporting company by the actor-manager. It was, at least, Shakespeare.

He much enjoyed a trip to New York to appear with Robert Morley in Edward, My Son in 1948 - this was his second visit as he had made his debut on Broadway in 1938, as Alan, the sensitive son, in J.B. Priestley's Time and the Conways. Shortly after his return, he joined the BBC Drama Repertory Company, and devoted much of the latter part of his career to broadcasting - he was still appearing occasionally in radio plays well into his nineties.

He was on the "Rep" for three two-year periods, plus three years with the BBC Schools "Rep". He also did a great deal of freelance broadcasting between his periods of full employment, and returned to the theatre whenever opportunities allowed. He played Solanio in The Merchant of Venice at the Haymarket in 1967 with Ralph Richardson, always one of his favourite actors, as Shylock.

But it was his voice that became his fortune, and he must have appeared in literally hundreds of radio plays. It was a beautiful voice with a very distinctive gravity in its tone, and his use of it was masterly. I don't believe that I ever heard (or saw) him give an unconsidered or undistinguished performance. He took his work far too seriously for that.

Godfrey Kenton was, in truth, a model professional actor. I can think of no higher praise.

Godfrey William Kenton, actor: born London 13 April 1902; married first Vivienne Bennett (marriage dissolved), second Mary Whitfield (two sons; marriage dissolved), third Ann Broadhurst (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved); died London 27 April 1998.