When Laurence Olivier invited Geraldine McEwan to join the National Theatre, his reassurance to her was “you can play comedy, so you can play anything”. And indeed, McEwan was everything one could wish for in a comic actress: sensitive to the text, precise in her timing, and with a versatility that constantly surprised. Olivier entrusted her with 11 mighty and diverse roles over a five-year period, contrasting highlights being a celebrated production of Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear (1966) and a traumatic, tortured staging of Webster’s The White Devil (1969) in which, as the noxious heroine Vittoria, she was described by one critic as “a whey-faced, Titian-haired enchantress”.
Comedy, be it farce (British or French), Coward or Shakespeare, dominated a theatrical career overflowing with triumphs; as Lady Teazle in A School for Scandal, directed by John Gielgud at the Haymarket in 1962, McEwan was credited with defining the role for a generation.
She was born Geraldine McKeown in 1932 in Old Windsor, Berkshire; her father was a printers’ compositor who ran the local branch of the Labour party in possibly the safest Tory seat in the land. She won a scholarship to Windsor County Girls’ School and became a regular visitor to the town’s Theatre Royal, where she played an attendant fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1946. After leaving school she joined the rep company there, debuting as a nurse in a new play, Sister Cecelia, in 1949. That Christmas she appeared in Dick Whittington, where her feline quality saw her cast as the Cat’s Girlfriend.
Windsor was a good place for a young actor-to-be, a good training ground enjoying a steady stream of West End transfers. The company stage manager was Hugh Cruttwell, who would go on to become a cherished principal of Rada. He and McEwan married in 1953 and remained together until his death in 2002.
Her spirited West End debut in Who Goes There? (Vaudeville, 1951) was the first of three good comic roles that quickly got her noticed. It was followed by Sweet Madness, another Windsor hit that transferred to the Vaudeville, and then For Better, For Worse... with Leslie Phillips (Comedy Theatre, 1953).
She rose to leading player, opposite Dirk Bogarde in the bucolic romantic comedy Summertime (Apollo, 1955). It was directed by Peter Hall, who she accompanied to Stratford as a mischievous Princess of France for his debut production of Love’s Labour’s Lost in 1956, then took over as Jean Rice in The Entertainer at the Palace Theatre in 1957. By now critics were fond of referring to her “baby voice” and were therefore struck by its moderation for her Ophelia to Ian Bannen’s Hamlet at Stratford in 1961.
She originated the role of Fay in Joe Orton’s Loot (Cambridge Arts, 1965), finding a musical quality in Orton’s dialogue she believed it shared with that of EF Benson, and felt that the more naturalistic the delivery of it, the more it sang. But the production itself was famously calamitous: the play was ahead of public taste in the smut stakes (Orton delighted in boasting about how many people walked out every evening), and hampered by script rewrites, menacing censors and a miscast Kenneth Williams as Inspector Truscott; the experience reduced McEwan to tears when coming offstage on the second night. (After one performance, a woman led her daughter to the producer and thundered “it was Felicity’s 21st!”)
She was rescued by Olivier’s offer to join the National Theatre. Of the aforementioned A Flea in Her Ear, that deliciously precise actor Alec McCowan wrote that it was “the best performance of a farce I have ever seen in England. I can still vividly recall the amazing tragic frenzy of Geraldine McEwan and Frank Wylie”.
In darker territory, The White Devil was a production of harsh, interrogative light with the cast dwarfed by lofty stone blocks that reduced them to a nest of swarming, vicious wasps. In her death scene McEwan perished “with vibrating death-agonies terrible to see”. A more purposeful act of destruction came in Maureen Duffy’s black comedy The Rites (1969), directed by Joan Plowright for the National Theatre Workshop, McEwan playing one of a cast of woman who, from a ladies’ lavatory, embark on the destruction of first an idea of a man, then an example of one.
In 1971 Olivier directed her in Jean Giraudoux’s Amphitryon 38, where, as Alkmena, The Stage said: “she sails through it all splendidly: a ravishing creature, enchantingly sensual, with perfect assurance and timing”.
She appeared in the revue Oh Coward! at the Criterion in 1975 and three years later at Chichester and the Haymarket, played the title role in Coward’s adaptation of Feydeau’s Look After Lulu. Later, in Hay Fever at the Savoy in 1999, she was a comedic whirlwind at the centre of what was otherwise a rather awkward attempt to find dark elements in the play and which only served to remind one of the essential, and shameless, frivolity of Coward.
She won the first of two Evening Standard Best Actress Awards for her Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals (National, 1983), and directed an enchanting Edwardian England evocation of As You Like It at Birmingham in 1988, Kenneth Branagh a cockney Touchstone with echoes of Archie Rice; she also toured the Far East with her one-woman Jane Austen show, Two Inches of Ivory.
Her film roles were less plentiful, but she was an especially strong presence in The Magdalen Sisters (2002). Four key television roles defined her on the small screen. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (BBC, 1978) made her Muriel Spark’s favourite actress in the role, and she was an impeccable grande dame in Mapp & Lucia (LWT, 1985). As the fanatically religious mother in the triumphant television version of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (BBC, 1990), for which she won a Bafta, she managed a moment of hypnotic vulnerability when telling her daughter a cautionary tale about how easy it is to confuse love with a stomach ulcer.
Most recently Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple (2004) redefined the spinster sleuth and the stories for a new era. “Miss Marple is meant to be a sweet, unthreatening old lady who merges into the background,” she observed. “But all the time she is watching and calculating with that sharp brain of hers.” Having taken the role partly to help her recover from her husband’s death in 2002, she was following such luminaries as Angela Lansbury and Joan Hickson, but she made it her own. “I decided to be Marple in my own way, as lighter and flightier, with a twinkle,” she recalled, “because it’s no challenge to copy someone.”
A mention must also be made of her turn as a toothsome adultress in one of John Mortimer’s London plays, “Mill Hill”, for Thirty Minute Theatre (BBC, 1972), engaging in an affair with a dentist (Peter Cook) whose fantasy is dressing up as Sir Francis Drake, McEwan obliging as Elizabeth I for his jollies.
It was one of innumerable examples of a glorious talent: whether coquettish or serpentine, Geraldine McEwan was equipped with a lethal armoury of kittenish, seductive voice, mischievous, knowing eyes and an elegant, old-fashioned beauty.
Geraldine McKeown (Geraldine McEwan), actress and director: born Windsor, Berkshire 9 May 1932; married 1953 Hugh Crutwell (died 2002; one daughter, one son); died Hammersmith 30 January 2015.