Helen McCrory’s final stage performance now stands as a monument to a towering, irreplaceable figure of stage and screen. In 2016, as Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea, she turned Terence Rattigan’s heroine into a woman who is simply too big for the confining 1950s world she has been born into. The performance was a gift; she electrified every inch of the National Theatre’s stage.
At the age of just 52, her death from cancer has floored us all. From the audiences who loved her to the actors and directors that she worked with, many felt connected to her through the sheer force of her charisma and spirit. On screen, she had a habit of stealing every scene she was in, and was awarded an OBE for services to drama in 2017. For many, she will be remembered for her endlessly cool performance as Polly Gray, the matriarch who suffered no fools in Peaky Blinders. But just last year, as we all looked to our TVs for salvation, she had as gripped as the fearsome Sonia Woodley QC in James Graham’s Quiz, and played a Prime Minister we might actually want to vote for in David Hare’s Roadkill.
On stage, she commanded vast auditoriums and gave audiences goosebumps. In 2014, she took one of the most canonical female stage roles – Medea – and left anyone who saw it feeling as though they had been wrenched in two. It’s a cruel reminder of the heights to which she would have taken all the other titanic roles she should have been destined to play.
But aside from being a gifted performer, McCrory was a tireless champion of the theatre. Earlier this year, she generously gave her time as panel member for our Future Theatre Fund, which awarded £120k worth of grants to young talents left struggling due to the pandemic. Her quick thinking and enquiring mind made her contribution invaluable, and will make a real impact to the careers of twelve emerging theatre-makers. In 2019, she hosted the Evening Standard Theatre Awards alongside her husband Damian Lewis, bringing her characteristic joie de vivre to the night’s celebrations. And she spent much of last year engaged in charity work, launching the Feed NHS scheme with Lewis and raising £1m to help feed NHS staff with hot meals during their shifts.
McCrory had star quality; she also had an unforgettable sense of humour. On Desert Island Discs last year she told a glorious anecdote about meeting Lauren Bacall in a toilet, shared memories of dancing to Grace Jones with Lewis, and said she’d take The Complete Works of Spike Milligan but hide it in a copy of The Complete Works of Philosophy - “just in case anyone else sees me”. She chose Stevie Wonder’s Don’t You Worry ‘bout A Thing has her final track. “I love the sentiment...the shit is going to happen,” she said. There was so much more to come – the loss of McCrory is deeply unfair. But as Lewis said when announcing her death, “she blazed so brightly” - and her impact will continue to shine.