Obituary: Brenda Bruce

Brenda Bruce was one of the most seasoned interpreters of the classics on the post-war stage. Whether in comedy or tragedy, fantasy or farce, she could be counted on to give a performance to relish.

Her career was so long and rewarding that to the generation that thinks of her mainly as one of the Royal Shakespeare Company's leading lights - as a marvellously galvanised Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor (from 1964 to 1975), a witty but eerie witch in David Rudkin's Hansel and Gretel (1980) or a hilarious Mrs Groomkirby in N.F. Simpson's One Way Pendulum (Old Vic, 1988) - it is worth recalling her earlier days when her West End career in Rattigan, Shaw, Maugham, T.W. Robertson, Anouilh, Arthur Macrae and John Mortimer made it seem as if she must become a star.

Who, for example, who had the luck to see it, could forget her Mabel Crum - in Rattigan's While the Sun Shines (Globe, 1944)? Did we not hang on every word uttered in that lovely husky voice and every look from those huge blue eyes and enchanting snub nose? The performance should have set her on the path to fame and fortune; but Bruce did not set great store by such banalities.

Her pre-war training at Barry Jackson's Birmingham Rep had made her a serious-minded actress. It was to Shaw rather than Hollywood that her young affections were drawn; and as Eliza to the actor-manager Alec Clunes's Higgins in Pygmalion (Lyric, Hammersmith), a jolly Dolly Clandon in You Never Can Tell (Wyndham's), and Vivie Warren in Mrs Warren's Profession (Arts Theatre, 1950), she proved a real Shavian when that guru was still in vogue.

She followed Clunes to the Arts Theatre which he ran as a miniature national theatre for his festival of one-act Shaws. But her range had already begun to extend itself through authors like Aldous Huxley (The Giaconda Smile), Somerset Maugham (Home and Beauty), Eric Linklater (Love in Albania), and as Peter Pan (Scala, 1952).

Even so her talent never looked as if it would lie outside comedy in roles as dear little things, charming or irritating, asserting her fluffy, chubby femininity through that warm and always human personality.

Then, in 1962, came the turning-point. As Winnie in Happy Days (Royal Court) by Samuel Beckett, up to her waist, then her neck, in earth, she gazed out at the audience under the bright stage lights with her big eyes and in a slightly Scottish voice as if she had found a new authority.

It was the play's first English performance and for her a nightmare. Having replaced Joan Plowright who had withdrawn, pregnant, she had had to get up the part in a hurry, studying it until the early hours every night; and the author himself turned up while she was still struggling with her words.

Easily awed, George Devine, the director, promptly withdrew as the author came up with more and more changes to his text; and Miss Bruce ended up being directed by Samuel Beckett, who had never directed a play before in his life. Beckett demanded from just one line as many as 11 different inflections. The performance was a triumph. "Peaked and wan but resilient to the last" (as Tynan put it), "she sustains the evening with dogged valour and ends up almost looking like Beckett."

Both on and off stage, Brenda Bruce was "resilient to the last" - the landlady in Michael Frayn's Here (Donmar 1993); though it was as characters of more consequence - like the pert and very funny Mistresses Quickly and Page in the Merry Wives of Windsor which she seems to have made her own from the 1960s, or the bald, cruel Duchess in The Revenger's Tragedy (1966-67), or as the wailing Margaret in Richard III (1975) while her own first husband was dying - that her acting reached its highest charge.

She worked more often in television than in the cinema and in 1962 was nominated television actress of the year. Her credits included the series Rich and Rich, Girl in a Birdcage, A Chance to Shine, Death of a Teddy Bear and Hard Cases.

Brenda Bruce was twice married, first to the theatre manager, director and broadcaster Roy Rich, who died in 1975, and then to the actor Clement McCallin who died two years ago.

Adam Benedick

Brenda Bruce, actress: born Manchester 7 July 1918; married firstly Roy Rich (two daughters; died 1975), secondly Clement McCallin (one adopted son deceased; died 1994); died London 19 February 1996.

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