During the 50s Quilley was a member of the Royal Court Theatre revue, Airs On A Shoestring (1953), which ran for over 700 performances, played showbiz reporter Tom Wilson in another long-runner, Grab Me A Gondola (1956), and took the title role, with Mary Costa as Cunegonde, in Candide (1959). In the following year Quilley took over the part of Nestor-le-Fripe in Irma La Douce, and subsequently took Nestor to Broadway, and on a US tour with Taina Elg as his Irma. In 1963, he was Antipholus of Ephesus in The Boys From Syracuse, a wife-troubled Charles Condamine in High Spirits (Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray’s 1964 musicalization of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit), and Robert Browning in Australian productions of the West End hit, Robert And Elizabeth (1966). Shortly after portraying Alec Hurley, one of the onstage husbands (the other was Maurice Gibb, from the Bee Gees pop group) of musical hall entertainer Marie Lloyd in Sing A Rude Song (1970), Quilley was recruited to the National Theatre by Laurence Olivier. While there, he appeared in many outstanding productions, including Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Jamie), Tamburlaine (Bajazeth), and The Front Page, which features one of his favourite parts, ace reporter Hildy Johnson. Mike Westbrook and Adrian Mitchell’s Tyger (Scofield), based on the works of William Blake, was an early 70s project.
In Peter Nicholls’ Privates On Parade (1977), as a leading member of a Combined Services Song and Dance Unit in the post-war Malayan jungle, Quilley created a hero, Captain Terri Dennis, who was also an outrageously camp drag queen. His hilarious impersonations included a top-hatted Marlene Dietrich, a suitably fruity Carmen Miranda - and even a taste of Vera Lynn and Noël Coward. His splendid performance earned him the Society Of West End Theatres (SWET) award for Comedy Performance Of The Year. Three years later, he received another SWET prize, this time for Best Performance in the musical, Sweeney Todd, although overall this Drury Lane production of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘musical thriller’ was thought unsatisfactory in several respects. There were no such reservations about Declan Donnellan’s ‘spare, razor-sharp’ 1993 Royal National Theatre production of the Sondheim classic, in which Quilley initially played Judge Turpin, with Julia McKenzie as the pie-making Mrs. Lovett. Quilley subsequently succeeded Alun Armstrong as Sweeney when the latter went off to work in film and television. Prior to that, Quilley had launched into his second ‘gay role’, as Georges, to George Hearn’s Albin, in the West End version of La Cage Aux Folles (1986, ‘Song On The Sand’, ‘Look Over There’). He also took part in an all-star, one-night only, charity performance at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, of Mack And Mabel. Quilley had Mack Sennett’s bittersweet ballad, ‘I Won’t Send Roses’ (he had previously performed the song at the European premiere of the musical at the Nottingham Playhouse in 1981).
Since the early 90s and Sweeney Todd, Quilley concentrated mainly on a range of parts in plays that included The Merry Wives Of Windsor (1995, Falstaff, Royal National Theatre), The Tempest (1996 Prospero, Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park), and Racing Demon (1998, Bishop of Southwark, Chichester). In 1997, he also played the German composer in Brahms On A Slow Train for BBC Radio 3. He worked in television in programmes such as The Merchant Of Venice (1955), Beast With Two Backs (1968), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1973), The Shell Seekers (1989), A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia (1990), and Rich Tea And Sympathy (1991), as well as the series Undermind (1965), Timeslip (1970), Clayhanger (1976), Masada (1981), and The Return Of Sherlock Holmes (1988). He reflected on his distinguished career in his one-man show, The Best Of Times, ‘a series of songs and anecdotes recalling a lifetime in the theatre’. Quilley died of liver cancer in 2003.