Obituary: Sheila O’Neill

Sheila O’Neill

Sheila O’Neill was one of the most accomplished British dancers of recent times, with a reputation for stopping the show in countless West End musicals.

She was born in Dulwich, south London. Her family moved to Selsey, West Sussex when their home was destroyed by a bomb during the war. Determined to dance from an early age, at six she won the All England Sunshine Dance competition and went on to train at the Arts Educational School.

She contracted polio in her teens, but fought back to continue her dancing. A keen interest in horses helped her recovery and she subsequently became a skilled show-jumper at the All England Jumping Course, Hickstead.

Highlights in a long, busy career included Paint Your Wagon (Her Majesty’s Theatre, 1953), Six of One with Dora Bryan (Adelphi Theatre, 1963), Sweet Charity – in which she took over the title role from Juliet Prowse (Prince of Wales Theatre, 1967), Applause, with Lauren Bacall (Her Majesty’s Theatre, 1972) and Kismet (Shaftesbury Theatre, 1978).

She was also seen as Adelaide in Guys and Dolls at the Palace Theatre, Watford in 1976 and, in Edinburgh, as Roxie (Chicago, 1982) and took a leading role in Benny Green’s Regards to Broadway (1983) at the Royal Lyceum Theatre.

She appeared in four Royal Variety shows, made numerous television appearances and was seen in cabaret in London, New York and Europe and in the films Summer Holiday and Half a Sixpence.

Also an accomplished choreographer, her West End credits included Kiss Me Kate (Sadler’s Wells Opera, 1970), The King and I (Adelphi Theatre, 1973), Dad’s Army (Shaftesbury Theatre, 1975), Winnie (Victoria Palace, 1982) and the 1988 revival of South Pacific at the Prince of Wales Theatre.

She was movement adviser to the National Theatre in the early 1970s and staged The Beggar’s Opera at Chichester Festival Theatre in 1972.

Extensive regional theatre credits included Cabaret, Chicago and King of Hearts at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh. There was also a national tour of The Pajama Game and Kismet in Canada. A highlight was the first professional regional production of West Side Story after its original West End run at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre in 1970. She also staged numerous major industrial shows throughout the world.

Her television credits included Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Bergerac, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Are You Being Served? and the British Rock and Pop Awards.

Sheila Molly O’Neill was born on May 5, 1930, and died on October 16 at the age of 87. Married three times, her third husband, until his death in 2016, was the percussionist Don Lawson.