Obituary:Ilona Ference

Ilona Ference was a talented and useful member of any theatrical production - although in appearance and temperament she was, in George Bernard Shaw's words, one of "Pharaoh's lean kind". She was one of those scrawny but admirable actresses - Mary Merrall, Joyce Carey and Una O'Connor spring to mind - who graced fine plays with fine performances even if they were perhaps precluded by their pert, bird-like qualities from full richness of character. As Athene Seyler used to say of her Prossie in Shaw's Candida, "Spare, my dear, spare."

She was born Ilona Hegedus, of Hungarian descent, in Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1917, the eldest of three daughters, all musicians, of the violinist Ferencz Hegedus and Kate Buckley, both accomplished soloists in their own right. Although their eldest child Ilona remained a music lover throughout her life, the stage was her main interest and, being bilingual, she played in both French and English theatres after a wide education in Austria, Hungary, France and Belgium.

In London she studied for the stage at Rada. There, her scholarly gifts and interest in travel as well as a literary outlook caught the eye of W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Rupert Doone. She was cast in such plays and divertissements as The Ascent of F6 and Trial of a Judge; later dubbing under the management of Nancy Price - "Nancy Cut-Price", they used to call her - in Karel Capek's Insect Play at the now defunct Little Theatre off the Strand. She decided to make England her main country of residence after winning a coveted Leverhulme scholarship securing her acceptance to Rada.

I had worked with Ilona Ference already when I took a chance to cast her, as a slip of a girl, in the demanding role of Mrs Manningham in Patrick Hamilton's gruelling melodrama Gas Light at the Scala Theatre in Tottenham Court Road (also now defunct).

I had been seconded from the Queen's Westminster Regiment, which I had joined at the outbreak of the Second World War. It was considered all in the interests of good Anglo-American relations for an English director to join on loan the American army drama unit based in London, and for them to have not an American-born but a British director, especially one who had already been associated, albeit as an actor, with a number of American plays, such as Theodore Dreiser's The Hand of the Potter and Clifford Odets's Golden Boy (when my co-star was Pamela Brown).

Ference as a student had performed to such good effect that I thought that here was a chance for an American now based in England to play Mrs Manningham. Gas Light had already been seen at the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue with a star cast and on the British screen with Diana Wynyard in the leading part (a hard act to follow). In the event, Ference, surrounded by an all-American cast, several of them Broadway professional players, spoke broad American and more than held her own; her own English was almost perfect.

Ilona Ference was versatile and accepted direction well and I was glad to be able to use her subsequently in seasons of plays I produced at my own little theatre founded after the war, the New Lindsey, and later still when one of the plays, the sensational Pick-Up Girl, which received the stamp of approval from no less a custodian of morals than Queen Mary herself (who saw a special private performance by command), was transferred to two of the largest theatres in the West End of London. It had long runs and made a star of more than one artist in its lengthy cast. In the relatively minor role of a court reporter Ference knew how to "project" (a rare gift).

Whether the play was Odets's Rocket to the Moon produced at the St Martin's, in which she was cast as a helpless young wife in downtown New York, or whether it was a West End revival of such a modern classic as Somerset Maugham's For Services Rendered at the New Lindsey or Thomas Robertson's "costume" comedy Cast, Ference succeeded in sparkling. Whether at the Library Theatre, Manchester, in J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls, or touring the Welsh coalfields in the title-role of Eugene O'Neill's early masterpiece Anna Christie, the actress invariably made an impression through her diction, body language and versatility.

It was during the run of one of these many productions that she met and married an actor, Antony Kearey, later to leave the stage and become much better known for his radio and television work as a producer. The couple had two children, both boys, before they divorced after a comparatively short marriage; and a change of fortune accompanied by bad health caused Ference to retire from acting during her last 10 years of life. She concentrated instead on what she finally could do most easily through her knowledge of foreign languages - writing for radio and television better parts for other actresses than she could finally find for herself.

I recall with particular pleasure Ference's Kristin, the cook in Strindberg's Miss Julie, with Joan Miller in the title-role, in a successful season at the Lyric, Hammersmith, and earlier still at Manchester in the late Forties when she was in the first revival for many years of Ibsen's penultimate masterpiece John Gabriel Borkman. Here she played opposite Miller again; one of two sisters who were dominated by the same man in their lives - both in love with the disgraced Borkman who haunted them to the end of their days. Ella Rentheim as played by Joan Miller and Mrs Borkman by Ilona Ference made mighty drama of what could have been, but for its writing and acting, a trite situation.

Ilona Hegedus (Ilona Ference), actress and dramatist: born Bar Harbor, Maine 10 October 1917; married Antony Kearey (two sons; marriage dissolved); died London 12 June 1996.

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