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Viola Lyel

File:Actress Viola Lyel.jpg
in After Office Hours (1932) © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Viola Mary Lyel[1] (19 December 1896 – 14 August 1972) was an English actress. In a long stage career she appeared in the West End and on Broadway, for leading directors of the day, including Sir Barry Jackson, and Nigel Playfair. Her roles ranged from Shakespeare and Restoration comedy to melodrama and drawing room comedies. Among the writers in whose plays she created roles were A. A. Milne J. B. Priestley and Terence Rattigan. In films she had a career lasting nearly thirty years.

Life and career

Early years

Lyel was born in Hull, Yorkshire, the daughter of Frederick Watson and his wife Elizabeth, née Lyel. She was educated at Hull High School and Kilburn High School, London. She studied for the stage at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and was a student at the Old Vic where she made her first appearance in 1918, playing small parts and understudying.[2] In 1919 Lyel appeared in William Poel's company in The Return from Parnassus in London.[3] She toured in Ben Greet's company, and in 1922 went to the Liverpool Repertory Company after which she was a member of Sir Barry Jackson's Birmingham Repertory Company from 1925.[4]

West End and Broadway

In 1926 she appeared in Yellow Sands at the Haymarket Theatre, London in a company that was led by Cedric Hardwicke and included the young Ralph Richardson.[5] Two years later she was a member of Nigel Playfair's company at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith.[6] In 1929 she went to America for the first time, and made her first appearance in New York, at the Elting Theatre in September as Lucy Timson in Murder on the Second Floor.[2]

During the 1930s Lyel's roles included Nancy Sibley in Milestones (1930), Clare Pembroke in Nine Till Six (New York, 1930), Edith in Bernard Shaw's Getting Married (1932), Enid Underwood in John Galsworthy's Strife (1933), Prudence in The Lady of the Camellias (1934), Gwen in The Late Christopher Bean (1934 and again in 1935), and Miss Bingley in an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which ran for nearly a year (1936).[2] She joined the Old Vic company in 1938, playing Valeria in Coriolanus.[2]

Among Lyel's roles in the 1940s were Emily Creed in Ladies in Retirement (1941), Miss Preen in The Man Who Came to Dinner, which ran for two years from 1942; she returned to the part in 1944 on a tour for ENSA.[2] At the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon she played the Queen in Hamlet, Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Lady Politick WouldBe in Volpone in 1944, followed the next year by Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Octavia in Antony and Cleopatra, Mrs Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, Queen Katharine in Henry VIII, the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, and Emilia in Othello .[2] Beginning in March 1948 she played the gawky schoolmistress Miss Gosssage in The Happiest Days of Your Life, which ran for more than six hundred performances.[2]

Later years

In the 1950s Lyel again joined the Old Vic, where her parts included the Widow of Florence in All's Well That Ends Well and the Queen in King John. Returning to comedy in Fecruary 1954 she played Miss Ashford in a revival of The Private Secretary. She returned to the role of Mrs Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, at the Bristol Old Vic in 1960 and played the part in Lebanon with the same company. Also at Bristol she played the Abbess in The Comedy of Errors, and the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. In September 1962 she played Hilda Rose in the short-lived London production of Big Fish, Little Fish, and was in a much more successful comedy in 1964, playing Lady Cleghorn in William Douglas-Home's The Reluctant Peer.[2] Her last stage role was Aunt March in an adaptation of Little Women in 1968.[7]

Lyel married John Anthony Edwards in 1932.[8][2] She died in 1972 in Hampstead, London[9] at the age of 76.

Selected filmography


  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 Gaye, pp. 899–901
  3. The Return From Parnassus, The Times, 4 June 1919, p. 14
  4. "New Plays At Birmingham", The Times, 14 September 1925, p. 10
  5. "Haymarket Theatre", The Times, 4 November 1926, p. 12
  6. "Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith", The Times, 20 April 1928, p. 14
  7. Billington, Michael. "Pathos with the March family", The Times, 20 December 1957, p. 5


  • Gaye, Freda (ed.) (1967). Who's Who in the Theatre (fourteenth ed.). London: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons. OCLC 5997224. 

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