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‘She was extraordinary’: Helen McCrory’s life on stage remembered

Nick Curtis
·3-min read
 (Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)
(Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)

Tributes were paid across the arts world this weekend to Helen McCrory following her death from cancer at 52.

“She had it all,” says Rufus Norris, artistic director of the National Theatre.

“Whether you were in the back row of the stalls of the Olivier Theatre, or as close as the camera in Peaky Blinders, you got the same level of truth from her.”

Film director Stephen Frears, who cast McCrory as Cherie Blair in The Queen in 2006 and as Sonia Woodley QC in James Graham’s 2020 TV hit Quiz, described her acting as “forensic”.

He added: “She was such a witty woman, so glamorous and so bright.”

Nicolas Kent, who directed her as Lady Macbeth at the Tricycle (now the Kiln) in 1995 described McCrory as “almost the most dedicated actress I know of, a great leader of a company who never let anything go”.

Although she would win wide fame as Polly Gray in Peaky Blinders and Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter franchise – and as half of London’s most glamorous thespian power couple with her husband Damian Lewis – McCrory was first and foremost a stage actress.

“Doing theatre is what made my heart sing,” she said, according to Lewis’s own moving tribute this weekend.

Although she could be witty and vivacious both on and off stage, she excelled in tragic parts.

Her National Theatre appearances alone embraced Nina in The Seagull (1994), a searing Medea (2014) and a heartbreaking Hester Collyer in Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea (2016). “Helen was quite diminutive in height and frame,” said Norris, “but [as Hester} she was in complete control of everyone.”

After training at Drama Centre and early success at Harrogate and Manchester, her first major London role was as Jacinta, the simple girl whose rape triggers a village revolution in Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna, for Declan Donnellan’s company Cheek by Jowl at the National in 1992.

“She was extraordinary, very moving and quite frightening,” said Donnellan.

He and his partner in life and work, Nick Ormerod, valued McCrory’s talent for friendship as well as her professional skills.

“We adored her,” he said. “She was the person you made a beeline for at the interval, to have a glass of wine with and a cackle.”

David Lan, who directed McCrory alongside Dominic West and Sienna Miller in As You Like It in the West End in 2006, praised her “quality of delicacy and fragility, though she was also quite robust. The sadness of it is that she could have gone on to do truly remarkable things.”

Many praised the commitment and force of her acting. “Oh my god, she had passion,” says Peter Moffat, creator of the 2000 TV legal drama North Square, in which McCrory played a fiery QC.

“She was also a really good reader of what’s been written and a really good listener.” Writer and director Paul Unwin recalled that, in the 2004 crime drama Messiah, “she broke a finger ‘in character’ because I asked her to do more. But she forgave me, I guess, as she would always turn out to help read a new play.”

Devoted to her craft, her friends, and to Lewis and their two children Manon and Gulliver, McCrory remained a force for practical good.

Even as she was dying, she promoted the Prince’s Trust and the Feed the NHS campaign, and helped choose the worthy recipients of the Evening Standard’s Future Theatre Fund.

“She’d always nudge showbusiness to do better,” said Unwin.

Read More

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