Theatre actress Anita Reeves dies aged 67
Friends pay tribute to the actress, best known for her extensive theatre work and film roles including The Butcher Boy and Adam and Paul
Anita Reeves as Mrs O’Kelly and Jamine Russell as Moya in The Shaughraun in 2004. Photograph: Kip Carroll
Ingrid Craigie (seated) and Anita Reeves in The Dead by James Joyce at the Abbey in 2012. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh
Anita Reeves as Mena Glavin in Sive by John B Keane at the Abbey Theatre in 1993. Photograph: Tom Lawlor.
The Irish stage and screen actress Anita Reeves has died today in Dublin, peacefully, surrounded by her family, following months living with cancer. She was 67.
Regarded as a fine character actor of scope and versatility, with a particular talent for musicals and comedy, Reeves began her acting career early in pantomime. It proved to be a useful grounding in music and performance, but its greater influence lay in its audience rapport, something that would infuse much of Reeves’ later work.
Reeves’ friends in the profession recalled her as warm, loyal, supportive, generous, and truthful. “Anita had worked in theatre all her life,” said the playwright Deirdre Kinahan, for whom Reeves played the role of Patricia in 2012’s Halcyon Days. “She got the heartbeat of something. She was incredibly forthright and generous in her opinions. She was a real team player. I imagine she was like that in everything she did.”
On film, Reeves played roles in several Irish classics, among them Neil Jordan’s first film, Angel, as well as his later Pat McCabe adaptation, The Butcher Boy, and Mike Newell’s Into the West and Lenny Abrahamson’s Adam and Paul. But it was on stage that her talents shone brightest. The director Joe Dowling, who first worked with her in 1966, and maintained a close friendship with her ever since, remembered Reeves as a person of “immense heart and great spirit, with the ability to play both comedy and tragedy. She was uniquely gifted in so many aspects of our business.”
Reeves made her last professional appearance in Dowling’s final production as director of the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, in 2015, playing Juno in Sean O’Casey’s classic, Juno and the Paycock. “Everyone would tell you she was a joy to work with,” said Dowling. “She was someone who had the ability to convey that warmth and generosity of spirit, because that was how she lived her life.”
Reeves maintained a long relationship with the Abbey, where she first worked in 1976, and with which she performed in the original production of Brian Friel’s immensely successful Dancing at Lughnasa as Maggie, in 1990, a role that earned her an Olivier Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
The director of the Abbey, Fiach MacConghail said: “It is with sadness and deep shock that we have learned of the untimely death of Anita Reeves. It is heart breaking most of all for her devoted family Julian, Gemma and Danny. For all of us – her friends and the theatre community – we are at a loss as we grieve one of Ireland’s most outstanding and talented actresses.”
Some of Reeves’s most significant roles, which coursed with her talent for connection, included Madame Thénardier in Les Misérables (opposite John Kavanagh); a performance so witty and spontaneous as Mrs Lovett in the Gate Theatre’s 2007 production of Sweeney Todd that The Irish Times proclaimed itself “duty-bound to love her forever”; and her world-beating performance in Elaine Murphy’s 2008 play Little Gem as the grandmother of a family of Irish women.
Devoted to her family – her director/producer husband Julian Erskine, her daughter Gemma Reeves (whom she once performed with in the Abbey’s Romeo and Juliet in 2008) and her son Danny Erskine, a stage manager – Reeves valued her private life, selecting roles cautiously and only when she believed in them.
“She lived for her family,” said Dowling. “She was very much part of the theatre, but it wasn’t everything to her. She only picked the things she knew she would do well. When she became engaged with something – particularly when the other artists involved were young – she had this incredible passion.”
“Oh, I hate when I read something like this,” Reeves once told Kinahan, “because it’s so good that I have to do it.”
Reeves will receive special tribute tonight in theatres throughout Dublin and Ireland, led by Mac Conghail and Dowling at the Abbey, Barbara Brennan at the Peacock and Simon O’Gorman at the Gate.
Her funeral takes place in Dublin at the Round Room, Mansion House on Saturday, July 9th at 10am.