Zena Walker

Actress gifted with a sensual presence

Saturday 08 November 2003 01:00

Zena Walker, actress: born Birmingham 7 March 1934; three times married (one daughter, and one son deceased); died Brockenhurst, Hampshire 24 August 2003.

In any other European country an actor of Zena Walker's quality, gifted with a sensual presence and a voice of haunting, smoky allure, would have had a career with a continuous supply of strong leading roles on stage and screen. In a more costive Anglo-Saxon climate, even after an unusually rich and vibrant portrayal such as her Sheila, mother of the eponymous brain-damaged child of Peter Nicholls's A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, her career was, disappointingly, later dominated by too many stereo-typical lovelorn spinsters suffering clenched agonies in tweed suits.

From her earliest days in the theatre her unusual strength was evident. Born and educated in Birmingham, she was attracted to the theatre even as a child and following her Rada training she worked back at her local Alexandra Theatre prior to a brief repertory apprenticeship.

Remarkably speedily, Walker was playing leading roles at the Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in the era of Glen Byam Shaw (her first mentor). Impressing with a Miranda of grave, questing grace to Ralph Richardson's Prospero in Michael Benthall's nacreous production of The Tempest (1952). Wisely Stratford held on to this unexpected new talent, bringing her back the following season for a feisty Juliet.

Walker's first London appearance shortly afterwards was in Julien Green's version of his novel South (Arts, 1955), a then-daring study of riven sexuality, directed by Peter Hall. Her sensitive performance took her to the Old Vic and a return to Shakespeare, working once more for Benthall. She was a mischievously sparkling Katharine in Henry V and in the same season also played Perdita in a less than magical The Winter's Tale (both Old Vic, 1955).

Returning to the theatre after marriage (to the Scottish actor Robert Urquhart - they subsequently divorced) and motherhood, Walker illuminated Violet, often seemingly a dull role, in Man and Superman (Arts and Vaudeville, 1965) with Alan Badel a great Tanner; her attack and impeccable diction were ideal for Shavian roles.

Another of Walker's mentors was John Clements who always built up extraordinarily strong companies during his regime at the Chichester Festival Theatre. In a remarkable 1966 season her parts included Varya in The Cherry Orchard, directed by Lindsay Anderson with Celia Johnson as Ranevskaya; this remained one of her finest achievements, a haunting study of a woman with a vast amount to give, slowly coming to comprehend how empty her future is likely to be.

In a lacklustre Macbeth (directed by Benthall with Clements and Margaret Johnston striking few sparks as the central pair) Walker shone as a fiery Lady Macduff, and she was also in fine form, again opposite Clements, in Anouilh's The Fighting Cock, which transferred to London (Duke of York's, 1966).

Her best opportunity in a new play came with Joe Egg (Comedy, 1967, and Brooks Atkinson, New York, 1968) in which as Sheila she had to adapt to two very contrasted leading men as her husband Bri. With Joe Melia in London the gallows humour fending off despair was especially striking, while with Albert Finney on Broadway the pairing was rooted more in the couple's strong sexual bond and the pain of their divided feelings towards their child. Walker matched both these superb performances with a portrayal similarly thrilling in its ability to turn on an emotional knife-edge.

Back in London, this searing display led only to offers of supporting roles in glossy West End productions, including an uneasy revival of Anouilh's Waltz of the Toreadors (Haymarket, 1974) and a footling part in a glumly plodding C.P. Snow adaptation, The Case in Question (Haymarket, 1975). Another revival, Separate Tables (Apollo, 1976) starring an unlikely pairing of John Mills and Jill Bennett, had a fine, understated performance from Walker as the manageress of the hotel in which both plays of Rattigan's double-bill take place. She understood instinctively Rattigan's oblique handling of emotion and her outwardly brisk, no-nonsense manner did not fail to suggest the tornado-strength feelings beneath, but it was hardly a stretch of her talent.

Bad luck affected Walker's appearance at the National Theatre when she joined for Simon Gray's Close of Play (Lyttleton, 1979), directed by Harold Pinter, a study of a dysfunctional middle-class family. She had a rewarding role as the wife of one of the household's hopeless, messed-up sons, but the withdrawal during rehearsals of an injured Peggy Ashcroft and the frustrating postponements caused by industrial action on the South Bank took something out of the heart of the venture.

Peter Nichols again provided one of Walker's best opportunities when she played in the West End production of his play of adultery with alter-egos, Passion Play (Wyndham's 1981) directed with a sharp eye for its acerbic comedy by Mike Ockrent. She also seized on the chances offered in a revival of Noël Coward's Easy Virtue (Garrick, 1988) playing a respectable dragon-matriarch facing the prospect of a scandalous, cosmopolitan daughter-in-law; in Walker's hands the character became a wonderfully rich and blissfully funny study of outraged English snobbery and repression.

Based latterly in the New Forest, Walker never repined when worthwhile London leading roles became thinner on the ground. Despite that and private sadnesses - including the death as a teenager of a beloved child - she was happy to take herself off on tour (most recently in Alan Bennett's Talking Heads) or to regional theatres, often taking on character roles.

Recently she contributed a touching study of Mrs Elton, the understanding landlady of Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea (Palace, Watford, 2001), and she gave a beautifully observed performance in The Diary of Anne Frank (Birmingham Rep and tour, 2002).

A mutually rewarding and happy association with her local Nuffield Theatre, Southampton, under Patrick Sandford led to a whole string of performances there, including appearances in The Comedy of Errors and Oedipus. Her last Nuffield performance was last year when she played a lovingly fussing Anfisa in Three Sisters (few regional theatres could boast such luxury casting in a comparatively small role).

After a strong start in films, including Ken Hughes's Cromwell (1970) starring Alec Guinness and Richard Harris, the British screen neglected Walker (sadly she was considered insufficiently stellar for the Joe Egg movie, which in the event muffed its chances). On television she had more luck, with a meaty role in the series Man at the Top (1970-72) especially rewarding. Despite illness she was working until recently; her valedictory television appearance was in the ITV series Rosemary and Thyme.

Alan Strachan

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