“She had it all.” This is how the National Theatre’s artistic director Rufus Norris sums up Helen McCrory, whose crushingly sad death from cancer at 52 has robbed London of a woman who dazzled, onstage and off.
Although she found wide fame as Polly Gray in Peaky Blinders and as Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter film franchise – and as half of London’s most glamorous theatre power couple, with her husband Damian Lewis – she was, first and foremost, one of the greatest stage actresses of the age. “Doing theatre is what made my heart sing,” McCrory said, according to Lewis’s own moving tribute this weekend.
Though blessed with superb comic poise, she excelled particularly in tragic roles: her National Theatre appearances alone embraced a poignant Nina in The Seagull (1994), a searing Medea (2014) and a heartbreaking Hester Collyer in Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea (2016), among others, making use of what Sam Mendes this weekend called her “explosive energy”.
Offstage she was wickedly witty, devoted to her friends and to her children, Manon and Gulliver. Her palpable zest for life makes her early death seem all the more unjust. As Lewis heartbreakingly wrote: “I’ve never known anyone able to enjoy life as much.”
McCrory was nominated five times for the Evening Standard Best Actress Award but never won. Typically, this didn’t stop her acting as an effervescent co-host with Lewis of the awards ceremony in 2019, or helping to choose the worthy recipients of the Standard’s Future Theatre Fund this year, which disbursed £120,000 to young hopeful theatre artists struggling in the pandemic. The paper’s owner, Evgeny Lebedev, paid tribute to her, saying, “It’s extremely sad and heartbreaking that a person and a friend of such vigour and life has gone.”
She supported the Feed NHS campaign under lockdown. Even in her last weeks – she largely kept the fact that she was dying a secret – she and Lewis helped to promote the work of the Prince’s Trust.
Born in Paddington to a Welsh mother and a Scottish diplomat father, McCrory passed up a place at Oxford to study acting at the Drama Centre in London. Her first major role, as the bride in Lorca’s Blood Wedding for a National Theatre touring production, won her a Manchester Evening News Award. Her second was at the National itself in 1992, as Jacinta, the simple girl whose rape triggers a village revolution in Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna, directed by Declan Donnellan.
“She was extraordinary, very moving and quite frightening in the role,” says Donnellan, adding that she had the ability “that great, great actors have, to walk out of her shoes and into someone else’s”. He and his partner in life and work, Nick Ormerod, came to value McCrory’s friendship as well as her professional skills. “She burst into our lives and we just adored her,” he says. “She was the person you made a beeline for at the interval, to have a glass of wine with and a cackle. She had great vivacity and vitality and a somewhat transgressive sense of fun.”
In 1993 McCrory won third prize in the Ian Charleson Award – given for a classical performance – for her lead role in Trelawney of the Wells, also at the National. The following year, she made her big screen debut (as ‘whore’) in Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire, and also appeared in Rik Mayall Presents: Dirty Old Town on TV.
“It was one of her first jobs but she immediately demonstrated effortless precision and was more than able to hold her own alongside Rik, Michael Kitchen and Frances Barber,” says writer and director Paul Unwin, who helmed the show. Unwin too praises McCrory’s loyalty and friendship as well as her commitment: on a later TV show, the crime drama Messiah, he recalls, “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.”
Nicolas Kent, who directed her as Lady Macbeth opposite Lennie James at the Tricycle (now the Kiln) in 1995, describes her as “almost the most dedicated actress I know of. She absolutely lived for the role, was a great leader of the company and never let anything go. She also had an impish sense of humour and giggled a lot.”
Stage and TV parts poured in, with 2000 a watershed year: McCrory performed Anna Petrovna in Platonov at the Almeida and Anna Karenina on Channel 4. That year she also took a leading role in the legal drama North Square, as fiery QC Rose Fitzgerald. The show’s writer, former barrister Peter Moffat, created Rose to address the sexist atmosphere his wife had experienced in her own law career.
“Rose stood for all that fury and repression,” says Moffat. “I needed someone for the character who could really burn brightly, and my god she [McCrory] had passion.” He praises her technique, her ability to read scripts and to listen. “She was also a brilliant storyteller, though you suspected she was embellishing all the time. But anyone who called her out on that was really missing the f***ing point.”
2002 saw her play a languid Yelena in Mendes’s production of Uncle Vanya at the Donmar and in 2003 she met Lewis when they appeared together in Five Gold Rings at the Almeida. (When Uncle Vanya went to New York, Lewis wrote this weekend, Lauren Bacall mistook her for her co-star Emily Watson. McCrory’s quick comeback, “That’s alright Ms Hepburn, I’m glad you enjoyed the show,” delighted the Hollywood legend and sparked a friendship between the pair.)
Lewis and McCrory’s daughter Manon was born in 2006, the pregnancy forcing her to relinquish the part of Bellatrix Lestrange in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to Helena Bonham Carter. She would play Bellatrix’s sister Narcissa in three later instalments of the wizarding series. She and Lewis married in 2007 and Gulliver was born the same year,
In the mid-Noughties, she was still a connoisseur’s actor rather than a fully-fledged star. When the Young Vic’s director David Lan mounted a production of As You Like It in the West End in 2006, he and producer Sonia Friedman both wanted McCrory to play Rosalind but knew they needed a bigger name to sell the show. “Then we landed Dominic West, who was just finishing The Wire, for [Rosalind’s lover] Orlando,” says Lan. “Once we had him we thought, f*ck it, let’s get Helen.” The production, which also starred Sienna Miller, was a triumph.
Lan talks about the dark side of McCrory’s humour, her “fragile but muscular quality”, her ability to look into a person and know them instantly. Stephen Frears, who cast her as Cherie Blair in The Queen in 2006, says “Cherie was a clever woman, and Helen played clever women.” Her awkward encounter with Helen Mirren’s monarch garnered a surprising fan. “I took the film to Cuba, to the Karl Marx Theatre of all places, and the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez was there, and afterwards he was curtseying to everyone because he found Helen’s awkward curtsey so funny. She was brilliant, such a witty woman, so glamorous and so bright.”
Later, Frears would cast McCrory as QC Sonia Woodley in James Graham’s drama Quiz. This was one of a string of beady, authoritative, Establishment-figure screen roles that she played seemingly without effort, including Clare Dower MP in Mendes’ Bond film Skyfall, and the Theresa May-ish PM Dawn Ellison in David Hare’s Roadkill. For balance, from 2013, there was chain-smoking, tough-as-nails Brummie gangster matriarch Polly in Peaky Blinders, which made her a star and a style icon. Her co-star on the show, Cillian Murphy, said he was “broken-hearted to lose such a dear friend” and described her as “fearless and magnificent”; the series’ creator Stephen Knight called her simply “one of the great actors of her generation”.
And then there was Medea, on the National’s 1,100-seat Olivier stage.
“For Medea, she had to command that huge space, in a tragic role, as someone who commits an appalling act [killing her children] and keep the audience with her,” says Rufus Norris. Like Lan, he notes the contrast between McCrory’s slender, 5’3” frame and the power she exerted on stage. In The Deep Blue Sea, her last stage role, she was “in complete control of everyone” in the auditorium, he says.
Norris refuses to speculate on the dramatic roles McCrory could have gone on to play, preferring to treasure the body of work she created, the extraordinary heights she scaled on stage. Quite right. Some will remember her as Polly Gray, some as Narcissa Malfoy, some as the mum they knew from the school run. Personally, I’ll remember her onstage, quiet, still and wrenchingly moving as Hester Collyer. And at the Evening Standard Awards, wine glass in hand, with her husband, laughing raucously.