Steven Pimlott

Director whose career ranged from musicals and opera to the National, Chichester and Stratford
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Steven Charles Pimlott, stage director: born Stockport, Cheshire 18 April 1953; Staff Producer, ENO 1976-78; Associate Director, Sheffield Crucible 1987-88; Company Director, RSC Stratford 1996, Associate Director 1996-2002; Joint Artistic Director, Chichester Festival Theatre 2003-05; OBE 2007; married 1991 Daniela Bechley (two sons, one daughter); died Colchester, Essex 14 February 2007.

Steven Pimlott was one of the brightest and most versatile directors of his generation. His career began in opera, which continued vitally to involve him throughout his working lifetime, but ranged too from Shakespeare to the camp'n'glitz of such popular musicals as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (in its 1991 gaudy Palladium revival) and had latterly concentrated more on new work. He was vital to the shaping of On the Third Day (New Ambassadors, 2006), the winning play from the fervidly overheated Channel 4 television series The Play's the Thing, in the hothouse world of which his calm savvy was decidedly welcome.

Passionate about music from early years - he was a keen oboist - and active in Manchester Grammar School's musical and dramatic circles, Pimlott became set on a career in opera and theatre while reading English at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he was a leading light in the university's Operatic Society.

His Cambridge productions made him a natural choice for English National Opera as a Staff Director (1976-78) at the Coliseum, an invaluable training ground. Before long he was in demand for productions with such companies as Opera North (1978-80 - a captivating La Bohème, strongly stressing the character's youth, a tremulously passionate Werther scrupulously faithful to Massenet's tone and contrastingly, a powerful brooding Nabucco), Scottish Opera (a surprisingly pallid Don Giovanni, not his finest hour), and Australian Opera, before returning to St Martin's Lane to give ENO a popular favourite in another Bohème, again emphasising the youthful high spirits of the piece before its tragic development, beautifully charted.

Some of the most adventurous regional theatres had noticed Pimlott's work, stamped from the first by his striking visual sense and bravura staging ability with casts large or small. As Associate Director at the Sheffield Crucible (1997-98) his noteworthy productions included an exuberant Carmen Jones and an especially memorable Twelfth Night.

His productions often used music, original or familiar, to potent effect; in Twelfth Night he opened the play with Orsino raptly listening to the entire "Liebestod" from Tristan and Isolde before, finally, uttering: "If music be the food of love, play on."

It was his Sheffield staging - a scrupulous and eloquent scrutiny - of Botho Strauss's The Park (1988), a challenging undertaking for a regional house, which marked Pimlott out as a major-league director. Subsequently, he worked with the two national companies and became Associate Director with the Royal Shakespeare Company for a crucial period (1996-2002) in his career.

A first major metropolitan musical production was his British premiere of the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine Sunday in the Park with George (National Theatre, 1990), a demanding piece for which expectations ran unusually high and one guaranteed to divide the somewhat hysterical hardcore Sondheimites.

In the event, Pimlott scored heavily in the first act with its enchanting recreation of Seurat's world of La Grande Jatte but, not least in the eyes of its composer-lyricist, he was less sure in the modern day second half where his staging, involving a complex art-installation, was markedly less in command. His other South Bank outing, Molière's The Miser (1991), was similarly uneasy; normally brilliant in his sense of space, Pimlott seemed uncertain on the Olivier Theatre's wide open reaches and his comedic rhythm here was less than light-footed.

Altogether happier was his RSC work - a spare, flinty reappraisal of T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral (1993), a dark, sardonic Richard III (1995) and a controversial Antony and Cleopatra (1999), complete with graphic opening scene of oral sex (cut when the play moved from Stratford to London), with Alan Bates and Frances de la Tour in strong form. Pimlott's Stratford Hamlet (2001), with a striking set of oppressive watchtowers lit by stabbing searchlights, drew a remarkable central performance in the title role from Samuel West.

Other Pimlott RSC productions included Tennessee Williams's Camino Real (Stratford, 1997), exploiting the Swan stage and auditorium to the full for the play's teeming canvas while unerringly keeping its various strands in focus - the unexpected casting of Leslie Phillips as Gutman, the play's loud narrator figure, a white macaw perched on his shoulder throughout, was a vivid plus.

In the musical field, Pimlott struck financial gold with several lucrative West End and Broadway ventures, including the lavish Las Vegas-style Joseph (1991 and Broadway, 1993), with the pop idols Jason Donovan in London and Donny Osmond in New York, Doctor Doolittle (Apollo Hammersmith, 1998) and Bombay Dreams (Apollo Victoria, 2002, and New York, 2004), all informed usefully by his staging legerdemain and visual flair. He also simultaneously worked on new writing, most rewardingly with Phyllis Nagy.

Briefly, with the ill-fated Raymond Gubbay Savoy Theatre Opera (2004), Pimlott - never an élitist when it came to opera - was an Associate Director before in 2003 making up one of an intriguing triumvirate - the director Martin Duncan and administrator Ruth McKenzie joined him - formed to run the Chichester Festival Theatre, then at a low point in its fortunes.

With a large inherited deficit written off by the funding bodies which at last began to subsidise the Chichester operation, the trio programmed adventurously - Shakespeare, Goldoni, Gogol, rare Broadway musicals, new plays - but their choices often failed dismally at the box office. Latterly, blocks of seats were removed to make houses seem less thin - somewhat compromising the Chichester arena stage - and after only three seasons the deficit had risen to such a level once more that their experiment could not continue without the theatre's closure.

None the less, some of the best work at Chichester from that period was Pimlott's - a passionate, boldly staged and signally very funny Chekhov in The Seagull (2003) with Sheila Gish's magnificent diva of an Arkadina in her valedictory stage appearance, the rarity of Gotthold Lessing's Nathan the Wise (2003), a spare but powerful King Lear (2005), which saw David Warner's long overdue return to the English classical stage, and a strong new play by Edward Kemp, 5/11 (2005), which examined terrorism through the lens of a vivid study of the Gunpowder Plot.

A return to the opera house brought Pimlott to Covent Garden for one of his personal favourites - Eugene Onegin (Royal Opera House, 2006) - which emerged only a fitful success, hampered by unusually messy design, needlessly underlining Tchaikovsky's supposed emotional and sexual subtext.

Back in the theatre for The Play's the Thing, he seemed happy to be taking on a new play by a writer in whom he believed, working with some colleagues (including the designer Mark Thompson) of long association; and his withdrawal from On the Third Day in May 2006 after he was laid low by cancer was a devastating blow to the cast who, like most actors, had come so closely to trust him.

At the time of his death, Steven Pimlott was involved in rehearsals for the upcoming National Theatre production of Tennessee Williams's The Rose Tattoo, starring Zoë Wanamaker, on which Nicholas Hytner will take over as director.

Alan Strachan