OBITUARY : Margaret Courtenay

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The Independent Online
Margaret Courtenay was the grande dame of British light comedy. A formidable exponent of both classical and modern drama, opera and musical comedy, Courtenay had a voice which commanded every stage, a physical presence which demanded attention and a voice of all-embracing resonance.

Imperious to a degree, she created a gallery of haughty hostesses, dreadful dowagers, Teutonic chatelaines, testy old trouts and indomitable mothers- in-law. She ranged through Shakespeare, Sheridan, Shaw, Rattigan, Coward, Bennett, Albee and Sondheim with an assured authority and a theatrical technique which made her one of the busiest and most reliable players of her generation.

Nothing characterised the force of her personality or the subtlety of her sense of fun more than her performance at the Savoy in a 1993 revival of Coward's Relative Values. For once she was not acting like a galleon in full sail. This time, with only the slightest gestures, she almost underplayed the withering Lady Hayling with her snobbery and disdain for her social inferiors.

In a career which spanned 65 years - she began aged seven in Greek tragedy - Margaret Courtenay was sometimes dismissed as predictably dominant or foreseeably comic in her strident and overbearing manner before which strong men quaked while other women sat mute. In fact for all the Margaret Dumont-ishness of her personality - and it filled the stage whenever she came on - Courtenay knew how to ring the changes on her persona through an unfailing comic instinct. Her timing was impeccable, her discipline precise and her sense of occasion so exact and experienced that minor roles seemed to expand in her hands.

If she stole the notices in a marginal part, it wasn't because she had upstaged her colleagues but rather from what one can only call force majeure. Admired in the profession as she was for her steely sense of humour and robustness of attitude, her wry comedy emerged more than once in private during the last months of her cancer. Having been told she would probably die before Christmas, she never stopped working until she had to, but groaned last week: "And now I've had to go and buy myself a diary, damn it, for 1996 after all."

The daughter of a travelling agriculture salesman, Courtenay was born in Cardiff in 1923 and made her first stage appearance in The Trojan Women at Cardiff Little Theatre, where her mother acted, in 1930. While at Whitchurch Grammar School she began broadcasting, and she went on to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

After rep at Bexhill she joined the Stratford-upon-Avon Memorial Theatre Company for two seasons, and then the Old Vic in 1953. She toured the United States and Canada as Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Back in England after a season at Wolverhampton Rep she spent three years at the Old Vic, as Gertrude in Hamlet, Goneril in King Lear, Andromache in Troilus and Cressida and Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet. She went to Glyndebourne in 1961 for Ariadne auf Naxos, and toured Australia with Vivien Leigh in La Dame aux Camelias and Giraudoux's Duel of Angels.

To John Neville's Alfie (Mermaid, Duchess and New York 1963-64) she played Ruby; and for the Oxford Playhouse toured in Genet's The Maids. In a season at Regent's Park, as Mistress Quickly and Isabel in Henry V, she defied the din of aircraft passing overhead with her full-throated voice; and at the Bristol Old Vic gave one of her most powerful evocations of sarcastic female fury as Martha in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Other stage credits included Frank Marcus's The Killing of Sister George (Duke of York 1965) and The Farmer's Wife and The Beaux' Stratagem at Chichester. She proved an intimidating landlady to Alec McCowen's Hadrian VII (Mermaid 1968) and in 1971 toured with the Welsh Theatre Company in Uncle Vanya, and then with the Cambridge Theatre Company as Mrs Clandon in You Never Can Tell.

Among later West End appearances were as Mrs Wicksteed to Alec Guinness's Arthur in Habeas Corpus (Lyric 1973), and 13 Rue de l'Amour (Phoenix 1976), for which she won a Society of West End Theatre Award as best supporting player, Mrs Railton-Bell in Separate Tables (Apollo 1977), Murder Among Friends (Comedy, 1978) and Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals (Old Vic), The Knight of the Burning Pestle (Aldwych) for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Lady Brocklehurst in The Admirable Crichton (Haymarket). She toured with Anthony Quayle as the Dean's sister in Dandy Dick and at the National Theatre played Olga in You Can't Take It With You, before returning to the RSC at Stratford as the nurse in Romeo and Juliet.

Among her musicals were 42nd Street (Drury Lane), Mame (Drury Lane), Follies (Shaftesbury), and Showboat (Palladium).

Although admirers marvelled at her ability to tone down her acting for the television screen, she appeared in such programmes as Winston Churchill: the Wilderness Years and Paradise Postponed, as Nurse Clinch in The Fasting Girl, Mrs Richardson in Fresh Fields, Shirley Lee Sheffield in Executive Stress, Lady Cranbourne in Don't Wait Up and Miss Pinkerton in Vanity Fair. Her film credits included Royal Flash, The Mirror Crack'd and Under Milk Wood.

Adam Benedick

Margaret Courtenay, actress: born Cardiff 14 November 1923; married Ivan Pinfield (one son; marriage dissolved); died London 15 February 1996.