Theatre actress and ‘real national treasure’ Barbara Chilcott dead at 99

January 3, 2022
Theatre actress and 'real national treasure' Barbara Chilcott dead at 99

Stage actress Barbara Chilcott, a driving force in Canada’s theatre scene for more than half a century, has died.

Carol Davis-Manol said Chilcott, her first cousin once removed, died at her home in Toronto of age-related natural causes on New Year’s Day. She was 99.

A fixture of the Crest Theatre in Toronto and frequent player at the Stratford Festival in its early years, Chilcott moved between Canada and England during a prolific career on the stage, said William Scoular, a former colleague and acclaimed director.

“She was a pioneer — a real national treasure who forged a path for lots of female actors to come after her,” he said.

Acted on stage, TV and film

Chilcott began her career in 1943 as a member of the Canadian Auxiliary Services Entertainment Unit during the Second World War and toured England and Europe entertaining troops. After the war ended, she stayed in England and studied at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London before making her West End debut in 1949.

“Barbara was determined to be an actress, so she set out for London because, at the time, there was no professional theatre [in Canada] and she was the first Canadian to star on the West End,” said Scoular.

She returned to Canada in 1950 and performed on CBC Radio before joining her brothers Murray Davis and Donald Davis in their summer theatre company, Straw Hat Players.

Chilcott, left, stands alongside fellow performer Gerry Sarracini in the television adaptation of the play The Public Prosecutor, Feb. 26, 1956. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

Her brothers also founded the Crest Theatre in 1953, for which she played Viola in Twelfth Night, Antigone in Antigone, and Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra.

“Everybody who was anybody acted at the Crest Theatre,” Scoular explained.

He said she then spent several years going back and forth between England and Canada, acting on stage, on television and in film in both countries. In 1963 she founded the Crest Hour Company to tour plays to schools.

Rubbed elbows with the Beatles, Sean Connery

Scoular, who directed Chilcott’s final performance at the age of 89, said she was a modest performer but, during her career, rubbed elbows with many of the major players in the arts and entertainment scene, including J.B. Priestley, the Beatles, the guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Sean Connery.

He also said she was instrumental in convincing British director Tyrone Guthrie, who helped establish the first Stratford Festival in 1953, to come to Canada.

“Barbara had a great laugh and a wicked sense of humour, and though she was a massively private person, she loved being part of a [theatre] company more than anything,” said Scoular. “The show was more real for her than anything else in the world and I think the last years, when she wasn’t in a show, life was quite dull for her.”

Chilcott performs in a dramatic excerpt from a work by Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, Dec. 27, 1990. (Ben Haffey/CBC Still Photo Collection)

Chilcott survived her husband Harry Somers, a renowned Canadian composer who passed away in 1999. She had no children.

“She was the kind of actress who didn’t need to be told what to do, she just knew how to do it. She could say more with a raised eyebrow than most actresses could with an entire speech,” Scoular said.

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