For Matyelok Gibbs, who has died aged 91, 70 years in theatre and film were as much an adventure as a career. And children were at the heart of it, notably through her quarter of a century’s involvement with the Unicorn theatre in London, of which she was artistic director from 1973 to 1977.
Gibbs succeeded her mentor Caryl Jenner in the post having worked with that inspirational figure since the early 1950s. Jenner had launched the touring Mobile theatre for children in 1949, renaming it the Unicorn in 1962 and taking a lease on the Arts theatre club near Leicester Square tube station in 1967 as the Arts Council supplied its first, belated public funding.
The Unicorn, relocated in its new purpose-built theatre on the South Bank near Tower Bridge in 2005, is a long-established part of the capital’s theatre ecology, alongside its equally illustrious producers of theatre for children, the Little Angel puppet theatre in Islington, still going strong after 60 years, and the delightful Polka theatre in Wimbledon, which opened in 1979.
Gibbs acted and designed shows throughout her Unicorn days and launched a second “grown-up” career as an accomplished character actor in Alan Ayckbourn’s Ten Times Table (1978) at the Globe (now the Gielgud). She played a deaf octogenarian belting out show tunes on the piano while a community pageant celebrating a historical massacre disintegrates in the climactic, hilarious final scene.
On film, she played Erik’s mum in Terry Jones’s Erik the Viking (1989) – Tim Robbins was Erik, discovering there might be more to life than raping and pillaging, with Mickey Rooney as Erik’s granddad – and Auntie Muriel Weasley in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010), a gaudily attired, rude and gossipy great-great-aunt of the Weasley children resembling a bad-tempered flamingo.
She had completed a journey from children’s champion to colourful old crone, embracing both roles with zest and glee.
She was born in Leatherhead, Surrey, to Eric Gibbs, the chairman of Bradbury Wilkinson, engravers and printers, and his wife Olga Postnikoff, a refugee from revolutionary Russia who worked in Britain for the Red Cross. Both parents had had previous marriages and Matyelok had two half- brothers, John and Michael.
Matyelok (Russian for “moth”) was born with pointed, elfin ears and instantly nicknamed “Puck” by her mother, a moniker she carried happily through life. She was raised in Leatherhead and London, with a happy wartime evacuation in Gorran Haven, a fishing village in Cornwall. After boarding in Devon, she attended Queen’s Gate school in South Kensington and trained for the stage at Webber Douglas.
When the writer and actor Ursula Jones joined Jenner’s company in 1959, she and Gibbs struck up a lifelong friendship. They lived together in London, first in Oxford Gardens, Notting Hill, from 1961. To their friends and colleagues, they were bracketed together as “Puck and Ursie”, like Crosse & Blackwell or Marks & Spencer.
Jones wrote two dozen plays for the Unicorn, notably The Lion and the Unicorn Hullabaloo, a street show on the animals’ fight for the crown, incorporating a series of clown and acrobatic skills, and fights with rapiers and soda siphons. Gibbs scouted for playwrights to add to the repertoire of works for children.
When Jenner died in 1973, the Unicorn had virtually hit the rocks. The Greater London council’s funding towards the proposed new theatre was withdrawn, but Gibbs kept the project alive, as did her successors, including Tony Graham who supervised the opening during his Unicorn tenure between 1997 and 2011.
As both actor and director, Gibbs’s gurus were Stanislavsky and Michael Chekhov, architects of modern theories of performance rooted in naturalism and psychological motivation. She had a practised eye for acting talent, and standards were invariably high. She only felt slightly constrained at the Arts when she was obliged to share the premises with evening productions whose designs sometimes restricted those of the day-time children’s shows.
She spent a season with the Royal Shakespeare Company on tour in 1979-80, appearing in Much Ado About Nothing as Ursula, in Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and, at the Warehouse, in strong new plays by Barrie Keeffe and Howard Barker.
In a French play, The Workshop, translated by Tom Kempinski, at the Hampstead theatre in 1981, she was a prim old-timer in a postwar tailoring factory, and at the National Theatre in 1989, a notable Lady Bountiful, a deluded herbalist who “makes her own water”, in George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem.
Her best role on television was in The Jewel and the Crown (1984), Granada’s epic series based on Paul Scott’s quartet of novels on the end of the British Raj, where she exhibited reserves of compassion and wisdom as Sister Ludmilla, a Russian nun in the children’s compound where Daphne Manners (Susan Wooldridge) goes to help, and for refuge, after she has been raped and become pregnant.
Her other films included two by Agnieszka Holland – To Kill a Priest (1988) and Copying Beethoven (2006) – as well as Stephen Soderbergh’s experimental Kafka (1991) and Claude Lelouch’s thriller And Now … Ladies and Gentlemen (2002).
After Gibbs’s near-terminal brush with cancer, “Puck and Ursie” decamped to a village north-west of Toulouse, in France, where they stayed for 23 years, while keeping a pied-a-terre in London. They lived a full social life among friends and colleagues. For a time, they ran a decorated furniture shop. Gibbs loved painting, and the couple made beautiful homes wherever they went.
Their relationship was ratified as a civil partnership in France and then in 2004 in Britain. Gibbs is survived by Jones.
Her half-brothers both predeceased her.
• Ann Matyelok Gibbs, actor and director, born 1 August 1932; died 14 August 2023