Obituary: Pam Gems, playwright

Feminist playwright who won success at Edinburgh Festival with Dead Fish

Pam Gems, playwright.

Born: 1 August, 1925, in Hampshire.

Died: 13 May, 2011, in London, aged 85.

PAM GEMS was a slightly unlikely feminist playwright who wrote plays in her spare time when not attending to her four children, got her first big break at the 1976 Edinburgh Festival and went on to enjoy her greatest success with the musical play Piaf.

The legendary French chanteuse Edith Piaf had died in 1963, but Gems' play did much to maintain and spread interest in her. Arguably it contributed, albeit indirectly, to Marion Cotillard's Oscar success in the 2007 film La Vie en Rose.

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Gems' play did not pull its punches, portraying its subject as a self-destructive alcoholic, albeit one touched by genius. The end result was incredibly poignant.

Despite her manifest flaws, Gems saw Piaf as a feminist heroine. "The details of Piaf's life have been chewed over for the last 40 years," she wrote in the programme for a production at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh in 1982. "Why not listen to her singing and leave the gossip alone?

"But there is something that women have to do just now and that is to explore, revise and record their own history. Brecht wrote 'Happy is the land that needs no heroes,' but I'm inclined to think that women do need to celebrate a few of their own kind just now, as a way of doing honour to themselves."

Piaf premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon, starring Jane Lapotaire, in 1978 and was staged all over the world, including Broadway, where Lapotaire won a Tony. There were several Scottish productions, Elaine Page starred in a London revival in 1993-4 and it was revived at the Donmar a few years ago, with Elena Roger as Piaf.

Pam Gems was born Iris Pamela Price in Hampshire in 1925, grew up in the village of Bransgore on the edge of the New Forest and served in the WRNS during the Second World War. She studied psychology at Manchester University, married Keith Gems, an architect, and started a family. Stuck at home with the children, whenever she had a spare half-hour she would spend it writing, though success was anything but immediate. As society opened up and class and gender barriers were breached, there was demand for plays on social and political themes. But it took Gems a while to find her feet in the London scene. The first time she went to a women's group she took a jar of home-made jam.

Despite the noises coming from the Women's Lib camp, Gems felt there was little authentic theatre writing from a woman's perspective. "They were occasionally celebrated but never convincingly explored," she said in one interview.

She became involved with the Almost Free Theatre in London in the 1970s when well into her forties. It provided a platform for her monologues My Warren, about a woman alone in a bedsit, and After Birthday, about the aftermath of a miscarriage.

Her first full-length play The Amiable Courtship of Miz Venus and Wild Bill also premiered at the Almost Free Theatre and was staged at the Traverse in Edinburgh.

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Her first major success came in Edinburgh a few years later with Dead Fish, a play about four young women who end up living together in a London flat. Dusa is separated from her husband, who has taken their children, Fish's feminism does little to prepare her for romantic disappointment; Stas's cynicism may be a front; and Vi is an anorexic young hippy. It was renamed Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi and was a commercial success in the London West End.

Gems worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company for whom she wrote Queen Christina, about the Swedish queen who had been brought up as a boy. The character had already been played on screen by Greta Garbo. It tackled issues of gender and of being a woman in a man's world, a recurrent theme.

Gems wrote many plays and also produced adaptations and translations, including Chekov's The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull. She enjoyed success with plays about real people including Marlene, with Sian Phillips as Dietrich, and Stanley, with Antony Sher as the artist Spencer. She is survived by her husband and four children. Son Jonathan Gems, also a writer, scripted the Tim Burton film Mars Attacks!