Pam Gems: Playwright celebrated for her biographical works which explored their subjects’ dark sides

The playwright Pam Gems specialised in biographical plays that celebrated great cultural figures while exposing the dark side of their emotional lives. This wasn't done to upset the apple cart, or for merely sensational reasons, but to explain, or understand, the characters better in their emotional and social contexts.

Thus the stories of Edith Piaf, Queen Christina, Marlene Dietrich, Stanley Spencer and Mrs Pat Campbell were retold from a compassionate feminist point of view but always with one eye on theatrical possibilities. Gems wrote snappy, tough scripts that often benefited from a Brechtian, or minimalist, staging.

Piaf, which she wrote for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1978, was the best example of this. Jane Lapotaire's title performance in Howard Davies's biting production went on from the small Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon to the West End and Broadway. The play looked a lot thinner in Peter Hall's more respectful staging with Elaine Paige in 1993, but took off once more three years ago when the dynamic Argentinian actress Elena Roger gave a performance of self-immolating intensity in Jamie Lloyd's fast-paced production, which made a complete virtue of the snapshot scenes.

Gems had the knack of avoidingall the biopic clichés of stilted self-explanatory dialogue. Her writing was always fresh and funny and her method was summed up by the Globe Theatre director Dominic Dromgoole:"She chucks down loosely whatever seems of inherent dramatic merit,then leaves the rest to the star. Intermittently she writes startlingly well, summoning up a period or an inner crisis with a casual phrase, and her plays have a wonderfully big-hearted rough energy, but they're not completely conceived."

In a way, she anticipated our current insatiable appetite for salty biography. And when she anatomised the painter Stanley Spencer in Stanley at the National Theatre in 1996, she impressed the biographer Victoria Glendinning with her dedication to the love drive and remorselessness of her subject. Glendinning was even moved to reflect on how limited and limiting book-biography was as a genre: "How much more exciting," she wrote, "to throw away the documentation and write a play. And how much more difficult, and dangerous."

Pamela Price was born of working- class parents in Bransgore, Hampshire. She wrote plays from an early age but was a latecomer as a professional. She was educated at Brockenhurst Grammar School and Manchester University, where she took a psychology degree and, soon after, married the architect Keith Gems. They had four children and moved to London, where she found a natural home on the burgeoning fringe theatre scene of the early 1970s.

She wrote children's plays, and more overtly feminist dramas for Ed Berman's Almost Free Theatre, and was an inspirational, exemplaryfigure for many of the younger writers and actors at that time. Large, demonstrative, full of energy and good humour, she was a combination of Mother Courage and Peggy Mount, as if the mould of the maternal battle-axe had been broken for a jolly new left-wing model.

Her profile clicked into place with a wonderfully vital comedy, Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi, directed by Nancy Meckler at the Edinburgh Festival fringe of 1976 before storming Hampstead Theatre and the West End. The four flat-sharing girls of the title – a divorcée, a revolutionary feminist with a strong sex drive, a high class prostitute and a waif-like dope-head – ticked all the right archetype boxes but made the serious comic point that to live alone as a woman was to live as a second-class citizen. There were no proscriptions, but a lot of laughs, and the play seemed absolutely of its time.

This success took her to the RSC, where she followed the reassessment of Queen Christina in 1977 with Piaf and, in 1984, Camille, an emphatically anti-romantic re-write of Alexandre Dumas' consumptive whore Marguerite Gautier, stunningly well played by Frances Barber, given a child (by Gems) whose paternity gave the plot a powerful, melodramatic twist.

Liberty, sexual and political, was the theme of The Danton Affair two years later at the Barbican Theatre, a filleting of the vast Polish chronicle that Andrzej Wajda had used for his stage and screen versions. Robespierre was reinstated as a tortured idealist, reversing the emphasis on Danton's romantic heroism in the Georg Büchner play, but you never felt Gems' heart was in this story.

She was right back on form when Trevor Nunn christened the RSC's new Other Place building in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1991 with The Blue Angel, for which Gems returned to the Heinrich Mann novel Professor Unrat and revealed a much harsher story than in the familiar Josef von Sternberg film with Marlene Dietrich.

Dietrich, like Piaf, was an iconic, legendary figure who fascinated Gems. She had first written a play about her for the Oldham Coliseum in 1984. This became a wonderful vehicle, Marlene, for a glittering, statuesque Siâ* Phillips in the West End in 1997. Marlene was seen preparing for, then giving, a Paris concert in the early 1970s, poised between her own legend and her future waning cabaret career.

Because it was starkly written, some critics thought Marlene too thin. But it had a strong theatrical spine and a great performance. The same was true of the previous year's Stanley at the National Theatre, in which Antony Sher was outstanding as the painter Stanley Spencer, the priapic mystic of Cookham whose visionary genius shone through a private life of sexual muddle with his wife and lesbian mistress. The play was a huge hit and won Gems both the Evening Standard and Olivier best play awards.

Since then, Gems has been more prominent as a translator, providing fine versions of Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea for Trevor Nunn at the Almeida (with the late Natasha Richardson in the lead) and Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard for Jonathan Miller at the Sheffield Crucible in 2007 (with Joanna Lumley as Ranevskaya). This work had begun at Hampstead in 1978, when she provided a witty and idiomatic text of Uncle Vanya for Nigel Hawthorne and Ian Holm.

Her plays about Horatio Nelson and Mrs Pat Campbell were seen, respectively, at the Nuffield, Southampton, and the Theatre Royal, York, in 2005 and 2006. She never stopped writing. The Drill Hall in London gavereadings in 2009 to Winter Love,about the unconsummated passion between Elizabeth of Austria and Ludwig of Bavaria; and to Despatches, a new look, in a post-feminist age, at love and commitment, that brought her full circle to the lost world of Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi.

She wrote two vaguely autobiographical novels, Mrs Frampton (1986) and Bon Voyage, Mrs Frampton (1988), and she loved gardening in her second home south of Marbella, where the rhododendrons and camellias were renowned. She is survived by Keith and their four children, the eldest of whom, Jonathan Gems, is a playwright and screenwriter.

Iris Pamela Price, playwright: born Bransgore, Hampshire 1 August 1925; married 1949 Keith Gems (two sons, two daughters); died 13 May 2011.

Arts and Entertainment
Sheeran arrives at the 56th annual Grammy Awards earlier this year
musicYes, that would be Ed Sheeran, according to the BBC
Sport
Rio Ferdinand, Alan Shearer, Alan Hansen and Gary Lineker during Hansen's final broadcast
Sport
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Arts and Entertainment
'Deep Breath' is Peter Capaldi's first full-length adventure as the twelfth Doctor
TVFirst episode of new series has ended up on the internet
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Dynamics CRM Developer (C#, .NET, Dynamics CRM 2011/2013)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Dynamics CRM D...

Web Developer (C#, ASP.NET, AJAX, JavaScript, MVC, HTML)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Web Developer ...

C# R&D .NET Developer-Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET,MVC

£50000 - £67000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NE...

C# Developer (Web, HTML5, CSS3, ASP.NET, JS, Visual Studios)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?