Helen McCrory, who died of cancer at the age of 52, was already established among the leading stage actors of her generation when she first became known as Cherie Blair in the Stephen Frears film The Queen (2006 ), with Helen Mirren, and with Michael Sheen as Tony; and as a witch Narcissa Malfoy, mother of Draco, in the last three Harry Potter films.
His lively, slender Cherie Blair was part of a line of authority figures and skilled lawyers embodied by McCrory, culminating in a tart, brutally outspoken but deceived Conservative Prime Minister in David Hare’s television drama Roadkill (2020), refusing to give a “big job” ”to the shameless deputy of Hugh Laurie. By comparison, Narcissa was a “trick”, a goth hoot, for all her verve and stifling evil.
But it’s his imperious matriarch Aunt Polly in Peaky Blinders (Series Five, 2013-19), leading the roost in the interwar Shelby criminal family in Birmingham and keeping an eye out for ill-gotten gains, who suggested his roots in a complex. dramatic performance on stage.
In her last two roles at the National Theater, she was truly exceptional: as Euripides’ murderous Medea in Carrie Cracknell’s 2014 rebirth on the Olivier stage, playing the full range of the character as a barbaric refugee descended from the sun god. ; and like Hester Collyer, emotionally ravaged in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, relaunched in 2016 in Lyttelton, also directed by Cracknell, fully embodying the illogicality of passion, his features are on fire, said Michael Billington, “as an illuminated city ”.
McCrory was small in stature but enormous in spirit, fierce, even savage, on stage. No disrespect for the admirable Tricycle Theater (now the Kiln) in North London, but its formidable 1995 Lady Macbeth opposite Lennie James, directed by Nicolas Kent, really should have reached a much larger audience. She was still convincing and composed, coiled like a cobra, ready for the fray.
She was elemental, fire and earth, and could embrace the world in a tragic embrace. She has played great roles: Belvedira in Otway’s Venice kept at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, in 1994; Catalytic Anna in Pinter Old Times Erotic Dreamscape at the Donmar Warehouse in 2004; the tragically destructive Rebecca West in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm (Freud’s favorite Ibsen play) at Almeida in 2008. Twenty years ago I considered her “the next Judi Dench”. Now, as Richard Eyre said, we are deprived of all the great performances that she could have delivered in the years to come, in new pieces as well as in classics.
Born in London, she was the oldest of three children to Iain McCrory, a Glasgow diplomat of Catholic descent, and his wife, Ann (née Morgans), a Cardiff-born physiotherapist from a Welsh Protestant family. The family was itinerant due to his father’s assignments abroad – in Cameroon, Tanzania, Norway and France.
Helen returned to Britain to attend Queenswood School, in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, where her instinctive acting talent was nurtured by drama teacher Thane Bettany (father of actor Paul Bettany). She auditioned for the Drama Center London school and told the director who turned her down, Christopher Fettes, that she would apply every year until they admit it. A year later, after working in Paris and traveling to Italy, they did.
She made her professional debut at the Harrogate Theater in 1990, as Gwendolen Fairfax in The Importance of Being Earnest. Critics began to sit down when she played voluptuous Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice at the Royal Exchange in 1991 – “excellent” said The Independent, while The Times noted “a series of joyous recklessness” .
Eyre took her almost immediately to the National, where she joined the 1992 revival of Declan Donnellan’s beautiful 1989 production of Fuente Ovejuna by Lope de Vega, translated by Adrian Mitchell. She put a serious marker first as Rose Trelawny in John Caird’s marvelous 1993 cover of Pinero’s hymn to a changing theater, Trelawny of the Wells, and then as the exuberant and radiant Nina in the Caird’s staging of Chekhov’s The Seagull, particularly impressive as the crushed remains of his own dream in the last act.
Like all the best actors, McCrory knew how to build a performance in a two or three hour stage time, and she had the vocal and intellectual equipment to push it to the limits. Even in Simon Callow’s overly ambitious production of Children of Heaven for the RSC at the Barbican in 1996, she looked stunning as Arletty the bewitching Garance. And she was both fascinating and disturbing as a princess in disguise – trying to fight political injustice but thwarted by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s alluring prince – in Marivaux’s Glorious Triumph of Love, translated by Martin Crimp and directed at the Almeida in 1999 by James Macdonald.
On the night of the September 11, 2001 attacks, it was eerily silent along Euston’s road, but the incongruity of a Chekhov play – Platonov’s version of Hare – opening into a vast hangar resembling a shed at King’s Cross, a temporary outpost of the Almeida, was toned down by her performance as the widow of the alluring General Anna Petrovna in Jonathan Kent’s epic production: “Smoke Me Like a Cigarette,” she challenged Aidan Gillen’s chaotic anti-hero and womanizer, before steaming him.
Sam Mendes signed to Donmar Warehouse in 2002 with a brilliant double from Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night. A crack business included Simon Russell Beale, Emily Watson, David Bradley, and Mark Strong. McCrory was Chekhov’s languid Yelena and Shakespeare’s Olivia, once again retracing a revealing journey from mourning her father to life, sexually flamboyant. The shows were a knockout success in London and New York.
Another fire was started in 2003 when she met Damian Lewis during rehearsals for Joanna Laurens’ eccentric verse piece Five Gold Rings (A Christmas family reunion of clattering skeletons in closets and an adulterous pact) at the ‘Almeida, directed by Michael Attenborough. Offstage, they became a glamorous power couple; the only movie credit they shared was in Richard Bracewell’s Bill (2015), Lewis a Dark Naval Bigwig, Sir Richard Hawkins, McCrory a Scabre Queen Elizabeth I.
She starred with another Tory MP in Mendes’ second Bond film, Skyfall (2012), and featured in Tom Hooper’s war horror film involving a group of children evacuated to a haunted house, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death (2014). His last film was the extraordinary Loving Vincent (2017), “the first fully painted feature film” about artist Van Gogh and the circumstances of his death. One of her last television roles was a stern defense lawyer, Sonia Woodley QC, in the James Graham Quiz (2020), about the “Cough Major” on Who Wants to be a Millionaire; and she voiced Stelmaria in the BBC’s adaptation of His Dark Materials (2019-20).
McCrory married Lewis in 2007. Both were active patrons of the Scene & Heard charity, which puts volunteer professional actors to work on scripts written by children in North London schools. They also raised over £ 1million for a charity organizing food for NHS staff during the pandemic. McCrory was appointed OBE in 2017.
She is survived by Lewis and their children, Manon and Gulliver; by his parents; and by her sister, Catherine, and her brother, Jon.