Wendy Toye: Dancer and choreographer who became a pioneer for British women film directors

Few 20th century theatrical address books could have been more packed and star-studded than Wendy Toye's.

In an extraordinarily varied career spanning eight decades, first as a dancer in ballet and as a musical performer, before concentrating more on work as a director and choreographer, in addition to blazing a trail in British cinema, she worked with a whole Who's Who of the theatre of her era, from Max Reinhardt, Ninette de Valois, Anton Dolin, Joyce Grenfell and Noel Coward through to Cleo Laine and Cliff Richard and the Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice generation of the British musical.

Even when old age and crippling illness restricted her ability to work she remained an indefatigable theatregoer – to student shows as often as to West End galas – always particularly interested in the work of promising newcomers and still, in her 80s, thrilled to spot rising talent as she had done throughout her career. Part of the longevity of that career was due to her awesome memory for performances, so crucial when it came to casting her own productions.

Born in London during the First World War, she was a lively child from the start, responding so early to music that she was taken to dancing classes before she was barely out of nappies. Her first public appearance was in 1921 at an Albert Hall matinee of dancing academy talent, this startling precocity leading to her first public piece of choreography, in another schools' anthology-showcase – this time at the Palladium – at the ripe age of 10.

Toye's first acting performance was in a heavily balletic A Midsummer Night's Dream (Old Vic, 1929) with Mendlessohn's music, playing Mustard Seed in scanty yellow muslin over the Christmas period. Shortly afterwards, having been spotted by Ninette de Valois – they became lifelong friends – she joined the Young Vic-Wells Ballet, appearing as a featured performer for several years. She also toured with the Dolin/Markova Company, choreographing Aucassin and Nicolette for them and during the same mid-1930s period also choreographing several pieces for the Camargo Society which did so much then to foster English choreography, giving early chances to Toye and a young Frederick Ashton, among others.

During the 1930s, Toye – who always loved all aspects of theatre – was also often acting, making the roles of Marigold and The White Rabbit something of her personal property in various revivals of Toad of Toad Hall, originally at the Lyric, Hammersmith (1930). She also appeared in Reinhardt's epic religious spectacle The Miracle (Lyceum, 1932) alongside Diana Cooper and hosts of extras.

A big break came Toye's way when the leading impresario George Black, impressed by her work, began to use her as a choreographer on his large-scale shows, covering Variety as well as lavish "book" musicals. Among her many shows for Black was the London production of Cole Porter's Panama Hattie (Piccadilly, 1943) in which her exuberant musical staging, including such numbers for Bebe Daniels in the Ethel Merman role as "Let's Be Buddies", brought the house down with their sheer high spirits.

Toye's work also stopped the show in Noel Coward's first postwar production, the somewhat over-refined revue Sign No More (Piccadilly, 1945), especially with her rollicking gleeful staging of that litany of misfortune, "That Is the End of the News", with Joyce Grenfell as a gawky, adenoidal teenager; it was to Toye at the show's endless dress rehearsal, during a particularly energetic chorus number with the male dancers (one of whom had forgotten the essential jock-strap) as Harlequins, that Coward was heard to hiss urgently: "For God's sake, tell that young man to take the Rockingham tea service out of his tights."

The great impresario Sir Charles Cochran took what then appeared the considerable gamble of entrusting Toye with the direction, in addition to the choreography, of the A.P. Herbert show Big Ben (Adelphi, 1946), which she handled so well that she was at the helm of the long-running Herbert/Vivian Ellis Bless the Bride, also for Cochran (Adelphi, 1947). The romantic look of this – its elegant grace owing much to Toye's insistence on restraint in the design, restricting it to a simple palette of colours – helped make it a huge postwar favourite, thousands of women melting (as Toye herself confessedly did) to the Gallic charm of Georges Guetary's version of "Ma Belle Marguerite" and countless couples adopting "This is my Lovely Day" as "their" song.

Returning to performing, Toye became part of a genuinely legendary West End success with the opening of the London production of Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun (Coliseum, 1947). Faced with the impossibility of bringing Ethel Merman to repeat her Broadway triumph, the producers took a risk on the young and unknown Dolores Gray, who made a sensational debut as Annie, earning an unprecedented first-night ovation. She and Toye – effervescent in support as Winnie Tate – became friends, Gray visiting Toye whenever she returned to London after Annie's two-year run.

With her own ballet company, Ballet-Hoo de Wendy Toye, she enjoyed a successful Paris season in 1948, and then directed another big Cochran show, the last (and weakest) of the Herbert/Ellis musicals Tough at the Top (Adelphi, 1949), followed by a beguiling Broadway Peter Pan (Imperial, New York 1950), co-directed with John Burrell.

Few directors were in more demand than Toye throughout the 1950s, when she staged Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure (Fortune, 1954), directed the somewhat over-sugared musical Wild Thyme (Duke of York's, 1955) and began to make a significant impression in opera. Her productions in the opera house, always of sharp focus and impeccable musicianship, included a strikingly contrasted double-bill of Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle and Menotti's The Telephone (Sadler's Wells, 1957) and, memorably, a shimmering production of the rarity of Dvorak's Rusalka (Sadler's Wells, 1959), which had Dame Joan Hammond in magical voice.

As You Like It (Old Vic, 1959) – with Barbara Jefford a radiant Rosalind, supported by Maggie Smith's deflationary Celia and Alec McCowen's acerbic Jacques – surprised many who expected a purely decorative production, while a buoyant Fledermaus (Coliseum, 1959) showed her special brilliance in the operetta world – funny, kinetic and charged with a champagne-like exhilaration, fusing the huge auditorium with energy. This was followed by her rapturously-received Orpheus in the Underworld (Sadler's Wells, 1960) with a riotous, inventively-patterned can-can, and a teasingly mischievous and equally enjoyable La Vie Parisienne (Sadler's Wells, 1961). She also directed a quicksilver Midsummer Night's Dream (1964) for a British Council foreign tour, a production much enlivened by Ralph Richardson's beamish-boy Bottom.

Toye was always interested in new design and lighting techniques, and her production of a lively, youth-centred musical On the Level (Saville, 1966) was the first major UK show to feature continual back-projection, well suited to the production's fluid, non-stop style. But perhaps her most memorable musical achievement was the revival of Show Boat (1971) at her old favourite the Adelphi, for producer Harold Fielding.

Planned with the necessary near-military precision, this was unfairly forgotten when the Hal Prince version visited London in 1998, although Toye's was superior in virtually every respect (not least in its choreography). She handled the lavish "Cotton Blossom" and crowd set-pieces with thrilling flair, especially in a highly-charged World's Fair scene but, equally effectively, she directed Cleo Laine as the tragic, lost Julie so unerringly that even the familiar songs such as "Bill" (with Ray Cook onstage as rehearsal pianist) shone new-minted.

Toye was a natural to work at the Young Vic under Frank Dunlop; her productions in The Cut included The Soldier's Tale (1970) and a lively, inventive She Stoops to Conquer (1972). She also renewed her association with Coward to steer the revue of his words and music (which she also helped devise), Cowardy Custard (Mermaid, 1972), a long-running hit with a company headed by Toye regulars such as Patricia Routledge (at her comic best in "Marvellous Party"), Una Stubbs and John Moffatt. Previously she had supervised the star-laden Midnight Gala performance at the Phoenix in celebration of Coward's 70th birthday.

Later work included productions at the Chichester Festival, where she sadly had mostly poor material on which to work, the nadir being a misbegotten Goldoni-inspired "vehicle" for Penelope Keith, Miranda (1982). Her work on the Chichester hexagon was, moreover, uncharacteristically fussy; by far her best production there was the charmingly simple Christmas musical Follow the Star (1975) which was much revived. She also worked regularly at what became a favourite venue, the Watermill at Newbury.

Even despite restricted mobility because of illness, her energy and invention remain undimmed when she staged the Flanders and Swann revue Under Their Hats (King's Head, 1996) with immense flair on a tiny budget and – as always – immaculately turned-out even amid the backroom chaos of pub theatre. Its highlights including Susie Blake's hilarious version, sung suspended upside down, of "The Sloth".

Toye managed to break into films when it was practically unknown for a woman to direct a British feature and she had to deal with no small amount of prejudice (mainly front office) in the studios. The larky comedy of her first full-length movie All For Mary (1951) was unfortunately followed by too few decent scripts, although her wonderfully offbeat, near-silent The Stranger Left No Card, with a charismatic Alan Badel performance (it won the Best Short Film Award at Cannes) has become a minor classic; subsequently she directed a television version with Derek Jacobi.

Her one marriage was short-lived although she had a long relationship with the actor Jack Hedley. She lived mostly in Chelsea throughout her career, her charming apartments always dominated by her superb L.S. Lowry painting of a film location, and there she would entertain her friends, who were legion.

Beryl May Jessie Toye, dancer, choreographer, actress, theatrical and film director: born London 1 May 1917; CBE 1992; married 1940 Edward Selwyn Sharp (marriage dissolved 1950); died 27 February 2010.

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