Patricia Burke

Actress with a kaleidoscopic career who became a legendary Principal Boy in pantomime
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The Independent Online

Patricia Burke, actress: born Milan, Italy 23 March 1917; married first Michael Kimpton (marriage dissolved), second Gp Capt Duncan C. Macdonald (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), third John Collingwood; died Draguignan, France 23 November 2003.

In potted biographies and reference books, Patricia Burke always listed as her recreations "living and loving", and she certainly fitted in bounteous quantities of both alongside a hectic and remarkably kaleidoscopic theatrical career.

Gifted with a radiant stage presence, a strong voice which needed no amplification - hardly surprisingly, given her parentage of the actor-singers Tom Burke and his wife Marie - and, arguably the best pair of legs in the business, she was equally at home in musicals, melodrama (a famous Trilby in her day), light comedy and Shakespeare.

The lost art of revue and pantomime in its heyday before the adulteration of television and celebrity-driven casting were particularly glorious areas for Burke. In the days when London saw sumptuously designed, well-scripted pantos with major stars fill vast houses such as the Coliseum or the Hippodrome from Christmas Eve until Easter and when the provincial circuit also boomed, Burke reigned with Dorothy Dickson and Evelyn Laye as a legendary Principal Boy. She had an exhilarating zest and infectious sense of adventure (her Prince Charmings, Robins and Dicks always seemed genuinely to be having a good time, even in adversity) which entranced generations of children.

Burke served a long and industrious apprenticeship, learning from the best from her early days in the chorus. A London break came when she was cast in the hard-working chorus of the talent-laden Nymph Errant (Adelphi 1933), the only Cole Porter musical to premiere in London, produced by C.B. Cochran. Cochran - always a showman with a keen eye for a trim pair of ankles attached to talent - marked Burke out as a rising performer and employed her on several occasions as she gradually built up an impressive record in provincial pantomime and eventually in West End revues and plays. She scored a particular success, kimonoed and delicate, in the title-role of the exotic Lady Precious Stream (Savoy, 1936).

The breakthrough to above-the-title stardom came with the wartime musical The Lisbon Story (1943), hugely popular in its day - it filled the cavernous Hippodrome for over a year - with Burke as the feisty ballet dancer heroine Gabrielle.

Always intrepid and determined not to be typed, Burke's next surprising career move took her to the Old Vic where she scored a big success with a mettlesome, fiery Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew (1947). There was no sense that she would have been better off in Kiss Me, Kate; opposite Trevor Howard's equally committed Petruchio, the production was charged with an unusually high voltage of sexual chemistry and, for the time, an unexpectedly thrilling athletic vigour in their fight scenes.

She had few chances in London to play Shakespeare subsequently, although she was always willing to tour or to take herself off to regional theatre for a good part; her lyrical Rosalind in As You Like It (Connaught, Worthing 1948) was much-praised.

Burke's post-war career remained varied and busy. In London she fused George du Maurier's old warhorse of Trilby (Bedford, Camden Town, 1950) with the authentic conviction and pathos of melodrama and she totally understood, cast as Imogen Parrott, the backstage world of Pinero's Trelawny of the "Wells" (Lyric, Hammersmith, 1952). Revues such as Cockles and Champagne (Saville, 1954) and pantomime, including her favourite of Robin Hood in Babes in the Wood (Streatham Hill, 1955) continued to feature her, but the days of both as she had known them were numbered.

With rewarding new roles thinner on the ground in London, Burke continued to work regularly in the provinces, tackling meaty parts such as the Ruritanian royal heroine of Cocteau's The Eagle Has Two Heads (High Wycombe, 1958) or touring in post-West End frivols including The Amorous Prawn (1963).

One later strong London part came her way - Kit in The Lion in Love (Royal Court, 1960) - but, sadly, Shelagh Delany's second play had little of the vibrancy of A Taste of Honey. But Burke gleefully seized on the chance to strut all of her stuff when she took over from Anna Neagle in the critically savaged but epically running musical Charlie Girl (Adelphi, 1968), stopping the show nightly with a shimmering, scintillating Charleston as her character relived her chorus-girl past, appositely on the same stage as her Nymph Errant appearance at the start of her own career.

In later years, energy and enthusiasm undimmed, Burke worked happily for a London literary agency.

Alan Strachan

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