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Obituary: Jane Wenham – accomplished classical actor and star of stage and screen

Jane Wenham in An Inspector Calls in 1954

Having shown herself to be a classical actor of promise with the Bristol Old Vic and Old Vic in the first years of her career, Jane Wenham proved just as accomplished in musical theatre, contemporary drama and comedy.

After training at the Central School of Speech and Drama, she made her West End debut alongside Ralph Richardson’s Falstaff in Henry IV Part I for the Old Vic at the New Theatre (now Noel Coward) in 1945. The following year, she was seen in Laurence Olivier’s revival of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth at the Piccadilly Theatre.

She spent two years with the Bristol Old Vic, for whom she was a memorable Desdemona to William Devlin’s Othello (1947) and a striking Ophelia to Robert Eddison’s Hamlet at the St James’ Theatre in 1948.

From The Stage, October, 1967

Returning to the Old Vic in 1949, she delivered a string of notable performances in a wide range of classics encompassing Restoration comedy, French farce and Shakespeare – she was, said The Stage, “an ideal Hermia” in a 1952 A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Back in Bristol again in 1954, she showed surprising “spirit and style” as Donna Louisa in Julian Slade’s operetta-accented reworking of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Duenna, which transferred to the Westminster Theatre. She reunited with Slade as Luciana in his similar treatment of The Comedy of Errors at the Arts Theatre in 1956.

Joining the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1957, she was seen as Celia (As You Like It), Calpurnia (Julius Caesar) and Iris alongside John Gielgud’s Prospero in The Tempest.

She began the 1960s in Paul Dehn and James Bernard’s musical take on John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse (Strand Theatre, 1963) and ended the decade with a “moving… at times frightening” Sister Jeanne in John Whiting’s The Devils (Bristol Old Vic, 1967), the title role in James Saunders’ adaptation of Iris Murdoch’s The Italian Girl (Wyndham’s Theatre, 1967) and joining the National Theatre in 1969.

Later West End appearances included Adrian Mitchell’s Tyger (New Theatre, 1971), Royce Ryton’s Crown Matrimonial (Haymarket Theatre, 1972), Peter Shaffer’s Equus (Albery Theatre, 1975) and Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval (National Theatre, 1985).

Her screen credits included the 1954 film An Inspector Calls and, on television, The Strauss Family (1972), Testament of Youth (1979) and Downton Abbey (2010).

Ann Jane Wenham was born in Southampton on November 26, 1927, and died on November 15, aged 90. She is survived by a son from her four-year marriage to the actor Albert Finney.

From The Stage, April 1956

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