‘A fireball of wit and charm’: Tribute to Hampstead Shakespearean actress

Actor and director Philip Saville remembers actress Sheila Allen, who lived in Hampstead for 40 years and died this month aged 78.

Born on October 22, 1932 in Chard, Somerset, Sheila Allen was a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and her early development was in repertory.

It was the kind of solid start that every actor dreams of - a platform where you can practice the stagecraft of acting before a paying audience, often with a weekly change of play, running the gamut of drama, comedy, thriller or musical.

So it was that between 1951 and 1959 Sheila found herself at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Bristol Old Vic, Arena Theatre, Birmingham, and many others.

Those last couple of years before the birth of the 1960’s were momentous for many of us.

Chance came my way at the Armchair Theatre working on an original TV play, Ray Rigby’s Boy With The Meataxe.

Sheila attended classes in improvisation along with the equally unknown Sean Connery and I quickly cast them both.

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The meat of the play was a life threatening scene between Sheila and a boy raising a cleaver above her head.

The action took place around a domestic sink and, like it or not, the press labelled the production in November 1958 the first “kitchen sink drama”.

The following year my wife Jane Arden completed her TV play, The Thug, bringing the young Derby born actor Alan Bates together with Sheila Allen.

Her part was a timid young girl with a limp, a mole hiding away who plays the cello. Bates’s character, a restless defiant biker boy who fell for the shy girl, tenderly brings the fearful Daddy’s girl into his boisterous world.

On screen Sheila managed so convincingly the transformation into a young woman unafraid of society.

Rehearsing The Thug in the large basement of the Galtymore Irish dance hall off Tottenham Court Road, the photographer, then Anthony Armstrong Jones, aka Lord Snowdon, took some wonderful stills of Sheila in action.

Sadly my copies of them are lost.

Sheila became a family friend and in 1964 she married Director David Jones, having two sons Joseph and Jesse who describe their mother as “a fire ball of knowledge, wit, and charm and wonderfully loving”.

Although rooted in the West of England, she was able to grasp the nettle in the following decades that kept her in the forefront of adventurous TV drama.

In 1976 she performed in Bouquet Of Barbed Wire by Andrea Newman, where the spicy stories of sexual tensions in British middle class family life were referred to as “kinky”.

Playing the character Cassie Manson immediately established Sheila as a TV personality inhabiting the living rooms of TV viewers all over the UK.

But there is no doubting Sheila’s first and enduring love was for the classics - in particular Shakespeare.

At the Royal Shakespeare Company she played most of the queens, mothers, king’s daughters, and Portia in William’s canon. Her love of Chekhov and Europe’s greatest dramatists was endless.

On stage she played witches and wild wonderful women, not only in the theatre but in movies and television.

Moving to the USA in 1979-1980 marked a switch in energy where she found a new interest in teaching. Those who had the good fortune of being tutored by her were well informed.

Continuing her odyssey of the classics, her painstaking classes as assistant professor at universities in Manhattan, Boston and South Carolina became a star attraction among students.

It is essential that actors have a clear voice and Sheila’s vocal tubes were no exception. Blessed with a noble tone, her instructions were delivered with a just and natural born authority.

Sheila returned back to England in the mid 1980s and, although greatly suffering from immobility, she worked tirelessly acting, lecturing and teaching at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

I think it behoves all individuals to propagate their potential as best as they can.

Looking at Sheila Allen’s working tree, it had many branches - stretching from acting, writing, directing and teaching.

As such, she had a rewarding life, growing and giving much back in the performing arts.