Anita Reeves: Gifted actor who understood fine line between comedy and tragedy

Obituary: ‘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’


Anita Reeves, who has died aged 68, was a stage and screen actor whose command of comedy, music and drama were built on an instinctive rapport with an audience.

On film, Reeves played roles in several Irish classics, among them Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy, Mike Newell’s Into the West and Lenny Abrahamson’s Adam & Paul. But it was on stage that her talents shone brightest.

Regarded as a fine character actor of scope and versatility, Reeves pursued acting from a young age, first emerging as a young star of Dublin’s pantomime and musical revues. Many would consider these broad performance styles, but Reeves approached them seriously, and joyfully, applying their lessons to a long career of comic and serious roles.

She originated characters for the playwrights Brian Friel, Bernard Farrell and Deirdre Kinahan, among others, while persuasively assaying roles in the plays of Shakespeare, Sean O’Casey and Hugh Leonard without ever abandoning her infectious capacity for fun.

Reeves was born on June 24th, 1948, the youngest of four siblings, to a Garda sergeant and his wife. At 16, while attending St Louis High School in Rathmines, she joined the Brendan Smith Academy of Acting.

Her first professional role came with a panto in a small theatre in Dún Laoghaire, which soon introduced her to Dublin’s musical revue scene.

“She was extremely funny, she was a great singer and she had fantastic legs,” fondly recalled close friend and colleague Dearbhla Molloy. “Those three things guaranteed her a career in pantomime.”

How to connect

Reeves progressed to Gaiety Theatre productions, eventually taking over a starring role from stage icon Maureen Potter. “The most valuable lesson I learned from Maureen was to connect with the audience and feel they are your friends,” Reeves later recalled.

Such rapport made her a natural fit for Fergus Linehan’s comic revues in the 1960s and ’70s, which she performed with Des Keogh and Linehan’s wife Rosaleen. They also prepared her for the musical demands and comic elan of the scheming Mme Thénardier in a 1993 production of Les Misérables, opposite John Kavanagh, lifting their eyes innocently heavenwards when a trove of stolen silverware clattered free from their pockets.

As Mrs Lovett in the Gate Theatre’s 2007 production of Sweeney Todd, Reeves gave a performance so witty that the Irish Times critic Peter Crawley proclaimed himself “duty- bound to love her forever”.

A gifted character actor who understood that comedy and tragedy are divided by only a heartbeat, Reeves maintained a long relationship with the Abbey, where she first worked in 1976, and for which she performed in the original production of Brian Friel’s classic Dancing at Lughnasa as Maggie, in 1990.

Lughnasa nomination

Entwining humour and pathos, the role earned her an Olivier Award nomination when Patrick Mason’s celebrated production went to the West End. When the production transferred to Broadway, however, she chose to stay at home.

“She was very much part of the theatre,” said Joe Dowling, who directed her in what would be her final stage role, as Sean O’Casey’s resilient survivor Juno in Juno and the Paycock. “But it wasn’t everything to her. She only picked the things she knew she would do well.”

When she discovered something she believed in, such as Elaine Murphy’s Little Gem, or Deirdre Kinahan’s These Halcyon Days, she committed to them with “this incredible passion”. Kinahan recalled a performer who “got the heartbeat of something”.

Friends spoke of Reeves as a performer who never held back when developing a role in rehearsals, beginning fulsomely before judiciously discarding: “Gradually, a bit like a sculptor, the part would emerge”.

When Reeves learned that she had cancer, she addressed it with the same spirit, refusing to be a victim and dismissing the word “battle”. She spoke, instead, of “living with it”.

“Living was the most important thing for her,” said Molloy. “And how to do it to the fullest.”

Anita Reeves is survived by her husband, Julian Erskine, their two children, Gemma and Danny, and her siblings, Maureen, Tom and John.