With superlative performances at the National Theatre and for the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, the work of actress Elizabeth Bell garnered such adjectives from critics with The Stage as “impeccable” and “vivid”. She also enjoyed a successful but spasmodic theatrical association with Alan Ayckbourn.
Bell emerged from the Central School of Music and Drama in London in 1961 with both a gold medal and the Sybil Thorndike prize. One of her first engagements was at the Royal Court in Nigel Dennis’ satire on democracy, August for the People, starring Rex Harrison.
The following year, she had her first association with Ayckbourn in Stephen Joseph’s Studio Theatre company, in which Ayckbourn was both playwright and actor. The company, which she joined, played a summer season at Dartington Hall in the Devon market town of Totnes, followed by a three-month season at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, before finding a permanent home at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent. In its first season, Bell appeared in Ayckbourn’s production of Pinter’s The Caretaker.
She made her West End debut at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1966 in Beset by Women, an adaptation of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, and then returned to the Royal Court, where she appeared in The Soldier’s Fortune by Restoration dramatist Thomas Otway, and Christopher Hampton’s translation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (1970), starring Paul Scofield.
A further link with Ayckbourn came in 1987 when he ran his own company at the National. She appeared opposite Michael Gambon in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge and then went to Stephen Joseph’s theatre in the round at Scarborough to create the role of Imogen in Ayckbourn’s epic, The Revengers’ Comedies (1989). The following year at Scarborough, she appeared in his production of Othello, starring Gambon.
Her last stage appearances included roles in Euripides’ Medea (1992), starring Diana Rigg at the Almeida, Islington; David Farr’s The UN Inspector (1995) at the National, an adaptation of Gogol’s satire on corrupt bureaucracy in Tsarist Russia, The Government Inspector; Simon Bent’s play about inner-city life, Goldhawk Road (1996) at the Bush Theatre in Shepherd’s Bush; and Richard III (1998) at the Pleasance, Islington.
Bell’s television career lasted for nearly 50 years, mixing serious drama, such as John Osborne’s adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1981), with potboiler series that ran year in, year out.
Writing in The Guardian, Ayckbourn paid tribute to her: “To act with, she was a joy. To direct, she was often challenging, forever questioning, not content to accept things purely on face value and, like any good actor, never settling for anything less than dramatic truth. If that makes her sound like a tough proposition, then, once her questions were answered, doubts reassured, she was fiercely loyal to you and the production.”
Elizabeth Bell, who was born on March 20, 1941, died on October 21, aged 71.
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