Sheila Gish

Actress of pale beauty and subtle talents

For an actress of such flawless, delicate beauty, the facial cancer that struck Sheila Gish at the peak of her career was a particularly cruel blow. But the spirit and strength that made such a telling fusion with her fragile allure in many of Gish's finest performances - and which led her to make a courageous radical change of direction in mid-career - stamped her indomitable reaction to her later hurdles.

Sheila Gish, actress: born Lincoln 23 April 1942; married first Roland Curram (two daughters; marriage dissolved), second Denis Lawson; died London 9 March 2005.

For an actress of such flawless, delicate beauty, the facial cancer that struck Sheila Gish at the peak of her career was a particularly cruel blow. But the spirit and strength that made such a telling fusion with her fragile allure in many of Gish's finest performances - and which led her to make a courageous radical change of direction in mid-career - stamped her indomitable reaction to her later hurdles.

An army child, born in 1942, even in her early years of education in Bath at the Royal School for Daughters of Officers of the Army Gish was attracted to an acting career. After her Rada training she was only rarely out of work (except by choice) as soon as she left Gower Street.

Pitlochry in Scotland offered her an early repertory season, during which she met her husband Roland Curram. Mainly she found herself playing the ingénue roles for which her looks made her ideal, but an early indication of her comedic talent was evidenced in her sharp portrayal of Daphne, the determinedly stage-struck debutante (close cousin of Mrs Worthington's daughter) in Noël Coward's Present Laughter (1963).

A first West End appearance was as Bella, the dippy daughter of the family in the anodyne but long-running musical Robert and Elizabeth (Lyric, 1964), based on The Barretts of Wimpole Street.

During her daughters' childhoods, Gish for a time restricted her career primarily to television work with the occasional film role; she played a cameo role in Darling (1965), in which Curram played a major part, for the director John Schlesinger, a family friend.

Her performance in a touring farce opposite Ronnie Corbett brought her to the attention of the impresario Michael Codron; Gish was his canny suggestion for Alan Ayckbourn's Confusions (1975), in which a quintet led by John Alderton and Pauline Collins rang versatile changes from pathos to rumbustious comedy through five short plays.

Gish was impressive in all her roles (for which she won the Clarence Derwent Award for Best Supporting Performance), especially fine as a local dignitary resplendent in fuchsia silk and picture-hat in Gosforth's Fête, a sublimely funny miniature farce, which saw her snooty condescension reduced to muddied hysteria by a combination of a thunderstorm, marauding boy scouts, a malfunctioning tea-urn and a malignly short-circuiting microphone.

Confusion surrounded her appearance in Vieux Carré (Piccadilly, 1977), a flawed but fascinating autobiographical later piece from Tennessee Williams set in a New Orleans boarding-house with Gish strongly cast as a fading Southern beauty locked in a doomed affair with a younger lover. Cuts made at an extraordinarily late stage affected Gish's role to the extent that she felt unable to continue; she left the production just after the opening amid much press publicity.

Good repertory roles came her way: in David Rudkin's The Triumph of Death (Birmingham, 1981) and in S.N. Behrman's Rain from Heaven (Oxford Playhouse, 1981), in which Gish's beautifully modulated work as Leonie, one of Behrman's characteristically tender, tolerant heroines in love with a young radical, justified the revival. She also took over the role of the harpy actress-wife in the West End production of Simon Gray's thriller Stagestruck (Vaudeville, 1981).

Undoubtedly Gish could have enjoyed a lucrative career in similar roles or on television. However, when offered the part of the company gossip Belinda in the first production of Michael Frayn's comedy Noises Off, she chose to pass on it, having decided to wait for the more challenging stage roles for which she hungered to come her way.

They began with the demanding and rarely off-the-stage title role in Bérénice (Lyric Hammersmith Studio, 1982). She worked hard on her voice in particular in preparation for this, finding an impressive lower register and considerably extending its range. On a simple smoked-mirrored set Gish, dressed equally simply and stylishly in a Fortuny gown, was a revelation to many, riveting as Racine's love-consumed queen, phrasing and measuring her long Alexandrine cadenzas with a musician's subtlety and communicating a genuinely tragic sense of a personality disintegrating in despair.

After a disappointing Uncle Vanya (Haymarket, 1982) - her late-night scene as Yelena to Frances de la Tour's Sonya was the emotional highspot of an evening altogether too low in amperage - Gish seized the chance to tackle a part she had coveted, Blanche du Bois in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire (Greenwich, 1983 and Mermaid, 1984), just after the playwright's death.

Williams's imperious literary executor Maria St Just - who had taken strongly against Gish during Vieux Carré - with no little determination attempted to prevent the casting, claiming that the dramatist would never have approved it and that he had considered Gish "a poor actress". Fortunately, Greenwich had a cast-iron contract with Williams's New York agent with the author's approval, and also Gish had received a letter from Williams written shortly before his death in which he had said how good he thought she would be as his most complex creation.

In the event Gish's Blanche was a stunner; in a series of gossamer, filmy costumes she seemed like some rare, exotic moth doomed to destruction in a brutish modern America, but she grasped, too, the fierce tensile core of Williams's riven heroine and, most potently, mined a revelatory vein of comedy, on occasions self-mocking, on others dangerous, as in her teasing of Stanley Kowalski. Her scenes with Clare Higgins as her sister Stella became the nexus of the evening, which, especially in the heart-wrenching closing scene, became, fascinatingly, a tragedy of two women. Audiences - in the words of Elia Kazan, Streetcar's first director - gradually became aware of "sitting in on the death of something special".

Unhappily, St Just subsequently refused to approve Gish's casting for a projected Cat on a Hot Tin Roof production. Instead she moved to the South Bank for Tom Stoppard's reworking of a Molnár frivol as Rough Crossing (National Theatre, 1984), cast as a volatile musical-comedy star on a transatlantic voyage. Not hugely helped by some pallid numbers from André Previn, this soufflé never quite rose.

The rarities of Schnitzler's Intermezzo and Behrman's Biography (both Greenwich, 1985) saw her in excellent form; her next major challenge came with a John Dexter-directed revival of T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party (Phoenix, 1986). Displaying a remarkable and compelling stillness on stage in her long second-act scene opposite Alec McCowen's Harcourt-Reilly, Gish was absorbing throughout as Eliot's questing Celia, driven to her lonely, martyred death.

Of all those who have tackled the central role of Isadora Duncan in Martin Sherman's When She Danced - they include Pauline Collins, Vanessa Redgrave and Elizabeth Ashley - Gish (at the King's Head, 1989) was the most convincing, completely at home with Duncan's mercurial diva temperament, hurling imprecations and endearments with rapid alternation, and in several languages, at lovers and creditors alike.

Continuing to try to work with directors she admired, Gish shone in Sara (Cheek by Jowl, 1990) for Declan Donnellan, and as a glittering Clytemnestra for Deborah Warner in Electra (Riverside Studios, 1991) opposite Fiona Shaw. She also gamely took herself off to Sloane Square for a demanding new play - complete with a graphic opening scene of oral sex as her first challenge - Phyllis Nagy's The Treatment (Royal Court, 1992). A return to the National Theatre saw her make up a redoubtably eccentric trio with Frances de la Tour and Alan Howard as the damaged central character of Cocteau's Les Parents Terribles (1993).

Sam Mendes shrewdly cast Gish as Joanne, the predatory Manhattan wife given the devastating commentary on vapid Park Avenue society of "The Ladies Who Lunch" in his revival of Stephen Sondheim's musical Company (Donmar, 1994 and Albery, 1995). Gish found a different take on the role from the hard-drinking bitchery of its creator, Elaine Stritch. This Joanne was a fiercely unhappy and unsatisfied woman, using wit as both weapon and defence; her interpretation had all the vital aplomb and whiplash sting but it had too an aching vulnerability all the more resonant for being suggested rather than underlined.

There were two great roles left - sadly there never came the chance, once mooted, to play Cleopatra opposite the Anthony of Alan Bates (Gish memorably partnered him when she played the Countess to his tortured Redl in a 1983 Chichester revival of Osborne's A Patriot for Me) - with a voracious Mrs Venables, by far the best thing in a somewhat over-orchidaceous version of Williams's Suddenly Last Summer (Comedy, 1997) after the death of her old adversary St Just, and a gloriously flamboyant Arkadina in The Seagull (Chichester, 2003).

Wearing an eye-patch (her cancer had lost her an eye) which the audience forgot all about after a couple of minutes, and gorgeously gowned, she gave a full-blooded portrayal of an actress at the crossroads both professional and personal. Her tragi-comic scene with her lover Trigorin when she intuits his attraction to the younger Nina was a master-class in the art of knife-edge acting in the moment as Arkadina's opaline emotions changed on the turn of a kopeck.

Television provided Gish with regular opportunities - usually glamorous parts, including an enjoyably rampant opera star in Inspector Morse - in episodes of countless series. Unluckily, her one chance of sitcom stardom - in Carlton TV's Brighton Belles (1993) - although it had all the right ingredients on paper (Sheila Hancock and Jean Boht co-starring, with scripts based on the US series Golden Girls), emerged as a mirth-free disaster. She had much better chances on the smaller screen in Peter Nichols's Born in the Gardens and in a buoyant BBC series, That Uncertain Feeling, based on the Kingsley Amis novel, with Gish sensual and funny as an amorous wife with designs on a retiring librarian. It was on this 1985 production that Gish first worked with Denis Lawson, who would become her devoted and tirelessly caring partner for the rest of her life.

On film, Gish undoubtedly became best known for her appearances in several of the "Highlander" movies, although they offered little to stretch her. Whenever - too rarely - good chances on screen came her way she rose to them, not least as the outspoken, well-intentioned friend to the central pairing of Alan Bates and Janet Suzman in the film version of Peter Nichols's A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1972).

Gish had perhaps her best screen role in the undervalued Merchant-Ivory film Quartet (1981), an exquisitely mounted and slyly sardonic scrutiny of a jailed conman's wife nudged into a ménage à trois in the household of a Ford Madox Ford figure (the film drew on Jean Rhys's writing of literary and Bohemian 1920s Paris). Even in a stellar cast - Isabelle Adjani, Alan Bates and Maggie Smith included - Gish's pale beauty and her subtly gauged playing as a sophisticatedly stylish cosmopolitan combined to create a portrait which will remain a haunting memory of a luminous talent.

Alan Strachan

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