Described as Ulster’s “Queen of comedy” and Belfast’s “Queen of song”, the actress, entertainer and vocalist Leila Webster had a hugely successful career, working alongside such internationally recognised stars as Bob Hope and Josef Locke.
Born in Belfast, as a child Webster suffered from scarlet fever, depression and agoraphobia. To aid her recovery, her parents bought a piano and provided music and singing lessons, and it soon became apparent she had tremendous talent. At the age of 10 she made her first public appearance singing for the armed forces at May Street Church – and she was still performing at the age of 89.
Trained in opera and lieder, Webster sang at the Royal Albert Hall and was in demand as a soloist. She took lead roles in many operas and musical theatre, where she supported several leading stars of the day, including Hope and Locke. It was in the mid-1960s that her comedic ability shone through, and she became associated with the works of Northern Irish playwright Sam Cree. He wrote several of his most successful plays with Webster in mind, and she continued to perform them for most of her theatrical life.
Successful on stage, film, radio and television, she appeared many times in leading Belfast venues such as the Grand Opera House, Empire, Lyric, Arts and Riverside theatres, as well as touring to London, Manchester and Glasgow. She received widespread critical acclaim for her performances, which included the title role in Brecht’s Mother Courage, Sarah Montague in Martin Lynch’s Dockers and an extended run in the Lyric and subsequent tour of Patrick Galvin’s We Do It For Love, alongside a young Liam Neeson.
Webster was also instrumental in helping up and coming new local talent such as the comedians Frank Carson, Roy Walker, Adrian Walsh, James Young and singer Bridie Gallagher. Webster’s own comedic timing has been praised and noted by generations of Northern Irish actors and performers.
An accomplished artist, her charitable work earned her the MBE for services to the community in 1995.
Her last public performance, shortly before her 90th birthday last year, was in a tribute show to the late Carson, which made her the oldest performer to appear on the stage of Belfast’s Grand Opera House. Although appearing with the cream of Northern Ireland performers, her rendition of Send in the Clowns from A Little Night Music earned her the only standing ovation of the night.
Leila Webster was born in Belfast on October 9, 1923, and died on January 6, aged 90. She is survived by her son, daughter-in-law and three grandsons.
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