SHEILA Gish, who has died at the age of 62 after a two-year battle with cancer, radiated sensuality and passion.
She was that most unlikely of British actresses, a woman not afraid to convey a tempestuous, heated set of emotions. Delicate of feature and small framed - she was only 5ft 4in - on stage she was mesmerising with a mixture of glamour and vulnerability that made her obvious casting for Blanche du Bois in Tennessee Williams's tale of faded southern glamour, A Streetcar Named Desire (Greenwich, 1983). It was a choice, ironically, fiercely resisted by Williams's executor, the formidable Maria St Just, after difficulties over Gish's appearance and withdrawal in an earlier Tennessee encounter, his autobiographical Vieux Carre (Piccadilly, 1977).
All the same, it is for her stage roles demanding emotional selfexposure, that she will be best remembered: the terrifyingly self-deluding matriarch, Mrs Venables, in another Williams hothouse fable, Suddenly Last Summer (Comedy Theatre, 1999); the rapacious mother, Yvonne in Jean Cocteau's Les Parents Terribles (National Theatre, 1994, opposite a young Jude Law as her incestuouslycraved son) and Racine's Phaedra (Riverside Studios, 2002).
She was also a never-to-beforgotten - and Olivier awardwinning - interpreter of Stephen Sondheim's bitter commentary on "the ladies who lunch" in Sam Mendes's revival of Company (Donmar 1994, Albery Theatre, 1995).
As Joanne, a New York socialite with too much time and money on her hands, drowning a toxic sense of selfloathing with a lethal stream of cocktails, she managed to be hysterically funny while also conveying a desperate sense of despair and a piteous sense of waste - something of which she personally could never be accused.
When cancer struck two years ago, leading to the loss of an eye, within weeks she was to be found, sporting a Bette Davis style black eye-patch, leading Steven Pimlott's company at Chichester as the dissembling, egocentric provincial actress, Madame Arkadina in Chekhov's The Seagull (2003) .
Supported by her family and husband, actor Denis Lawson (Ewan McGregor is her nephew), she declared herself "incredibly lucky" and keen to put her fate to good use. She imagined a new roster of roles that might come her way as a result, including a Bond villain.
As so often, work was proving the perfect catalyst to rediscovering mental and physical equilibrium plus perhaps her own, innate gutsiness.
Sheila Gish, born in Lincoln, came from an army family. Educated in Bath and trained at Rada, Pitlochry became her first port of call, where she also met husband, Roland Curram, with whom she had two daughters, Lou and Kay.
Given her looks, her first appearance in the West End as Bella, the daughter in the musical, Robert and Elizabeth (Lyric, 1964) proved fairly unremarkable but enough to bring her to the attention of legendary producer, Michael Codron, who cast her alongside John Alderton and Pauline Collins in Alan Ayckbourn's quintet of plays, Confusions (Apollo, 1975). Her freshness and versatility earned her the Clarence Derwent best supporting actress award.
But it was as the eponymous, love-struck heroine of Racine's Berenice (Lyric Hammersmith, 1982) that she suddenly broke into the limelight. Dressed in a Mariano Fortuny gown, it wasn't just her tragic fragility that struck critics and audiences alike, but her vocal range (hard practice had enabled her to find lower registers) and her command of those rolling Racine Alexandrines. From there, she moved on into her "grand passion" years though in Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw (1990), her Mrs Prentice was a reminder, if we needed one, of the way she could bring a self-mocking, comic touch to sexual voraciousness.
Though the stage remained her crowning glory, on television, in recent times, she proved an imperious Lady Mountdore in Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate (2001) and it was in the BBC's An Uncertain Feeling (1985), adapted from the Kingsley Amis novel, that she met and fell in love with her second husband, the well-respected Scottish actor Denis Lawson.
She also appeared as Diana Dors's mother in The Blonde Bombshells (1998) and was part of, on paper, a sure-fire sitcom hit as a gold-plated trio that included Sheila Hancock and Jean Boht in Brighton Belles (1993) that sadly failed to fire. But she continued to work regularly on television in roles typically requiring her style of full-blooded glamour.
In earlier years, while bringing up her family, Sheila Gish had also appeared opposite Alan Bates and Janet Suzman as the bluntly-honest friend in the film of Peter Nichols's biliously-harrowing A Day in the Life of Joe Egg (1972).
However, many considered her role in the Merchant/Ivory film, Quartet, to be one of her finest and a fitting tribute to one remarkable, brave and gutsy lady.
Sheila Gish, actress;
born April 23, 1942, died March 9, 2005.