Although she became one of the most loved and reliable of character actors on stage and television, Frances Cuka, who has died aged 83, seemed destined for stardom when her career took off like a rocket in the late 1950s with Joan Littlewood at Stratford East and George Devine at the Royal Court.
For Littlewood, she originated the role of the pregnant teenager Jo in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958), acclaimed by Kenneth Tynan for acting “with a shock-haired, careless passion that suggests an embryonic Anna Magnani. She was, he felt, an actor with a lot of love to give. When invited to so deliver, she invariably did.
On joining Devine’s Royal Court she appeared in John Arden’s Live Like Pigs (1958) – a remarkable study of working-class factions on a northern council estate – and in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame with Devine and Jack MacGowran, before hitting the West End in A Taste of Honey and, in 1961, succeeding Joan Plowright as Jo on Broadway.
In between, she was a notable firebrand in Peter Hall’s famous 1960 season at Stratford-upon-Avon which heralded the birth of the Royal Shakespeare Company, appearing with Peter O’Toole, Diana Rigg, Dorothy Tutin, Eric Porter and Ian Richardson. She was Jessica in The Merchant of Venice (O’Toole as Shylock) and Maria, one of her signature roles, in Twelfth Night (Tutin played Viola).
Small, energetic and red-haired, she was always a powerful and sympathetic presence, especially good in comedy. But, unluckily, she missed out on the film of A Taste of Honey (Rita Tushingham was an overnight sensation as Jo) just as, years later, having been cast as Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders, the role was reassigned to Jo Warne (for only 10 episodes) before Barbara Windsor stepped in and relaunched her career so spectacularly.
Cuka’s career seemed to settle into a pattern of welcome familiarity, but occasionally she would come into sharper focus and assert her true pedigree – most memorably, perhaps, when starring opposite Michael Crawford in Bernard Slade’s Same Time, Next Year (1976) at the Prince of Wales, in which a one-night stand between a couple married to other people is replayed once a year with many a poignantly comic reverberation.
The discreet sexiness of this role suited Cuka, who was encouraged to unbutton more extravagantly on television as Doll Tearsheet in Henry IV, Part Two in the BBC Shakespeare series, or as homeless Mrs Bassey in Casualty, suffering a grisly death from burns in an explosion in a shopping mall. Her last television appearance came in Channel 4’s sitcom Friday Night Dinner (from 2011 to 2017) as Nelly Buller, the mother of Jackie Goodman (Tamsin Greig), another vibrantly awkward elderly customer.
Cuka – pronounced Chewka – was born in London, the only child of Joseph Cuka, a process engraver of Czech antecedence, and his wife Letitia (nee Francis), a tailor. She was educated at Tollington prep school in Fortis Green, north London, and, when her parents moved to the south coast, Brighton and Hove high school. She trained at the Guildhall school of music and drama and made her stage debut in 1955 as Effie in a murder thriller, Meet Mr Callaghan, at the Royal Court, Warrington.
Two years in repertory around the country took her to Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, with whom she toured to the Zurich festival and the Moscow Art theatre in 1957. In the heady next few years she played (and sang) Becky Sharp in a musical of Vanity Fair (1962) by Robin Miller and Julian Slade that flopped at the Queen’s theatre after two months. She was back at the Royal Court, London, for the 1965-66 season playing Mary Godwin in Ann Jellicoe’s Shelley, Annie in Jane Howell’s revival of Arden’s Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance and Mrs Allwit in William Gaskill’s stylish revival of Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean city comedy, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside.
Her association with the RSC continued at the Aldwych in the late 60s in Marguerite Duras’s Days in the Trees with Peggy Ashcroft, the Pinter double bill of Landscape and Silence and Seán O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie with Ben Kingsley, Helen Mirren and Patrick Stewart. Her most notable film performances followed: as Mrs Bob Cratchit in Scrooge (1970) with Albert Finney and Edith Evans, and as Catherine of Aragon in Henry VIII and his Six Wives (1972), Keith Michell reprising his performance in the BBC television series.
Established at the front of the second rank, she succeeded Barbara Leigh-Hunt in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties in the West End and on Broadway. After Same Time Next Year, there was a 1979 revival of NC Hunter’s Waters of the Moon at the Haymarket, in which she again kept first class company with Ingrid Bergman and Wendy Hiller. At the same theatre in 1985 she scored a delightful, tipsy cameo as Boss Finley’s wife in Harold Pinter’s revelatory revival of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth, led by an incandescent Lauren Bacall.
Cuka went to New York in 1981 with the first RSC production of the all-conquering Nicholas Nickleby and joined the 1986 RSC revival as Mrs Nickleby and a wheezy Miss Knag at Stratford-upon-Avon before touring to Newcastle, Manchester, Los Angeles and New York again. Her notable stage work in the 90s included appearances in Hall’s revival of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck at the Phoenix, with Alex Jennings; the 1930s French comedy Tovarich starring Natalia Makarova and Robert Powell at the Piccadilly; and as Hugh Bonneville’s mother in George Bernard Shaw’s US war of independence comedy The Devil’s Disciple.
A limited but eclectic roster of films included The Watcher in the Woods (1980), a supernatural thriller with Bette Davis and Carroll Baker; Bob Rafelson’s Mountains of the Moon (1990); a Gothic horror twist on Snow White (1997) with Sigourney Weaver as the wicked stepmother; Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist (2005) with Kingsley as Fagin; and Closer to the Moon (2014) a bizarre Romanian heist comedy starring Mark Strong.
Always cheerful and down-to-earth, it was typical that she should have made her last stage appearances in north London fringe theatres nine years ago as Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell and “a blousy Bermondsey broad” in a play called Carry On Brighton. She suffered a stroke a few years ago and was diagnosed with cancer.
Cuka had a fulfilling private life, with two significant long-term relationships with married men. She was a voracious reader and a dedicated gardener in the large ground floor Hampstead apartment she occupied for the past 50 years.
• Frances Cuka, actor, born 21 August 1936; died 16 February 2020