Piaf writer Gems dies

Published May 16, 2011

Pam Gems, the Olivier Award-winning playwright, passed away in her sleep on Friday at the age of 85.

Gems was born in 1925 and studied Psychology at Manchester University before taking up writing in her forties. The playwright made her West End debut in 1976 with Dusa, Fish, Stas And VI, a feminist drama about four women who live together.

In the years that followed, the playwright carved out a strong reputation as a powerful and political writer, working extensively with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.

Gems was arguably best known for her musical play Piaf. Charting the tempestuous life of the iconic singer Edith Piaf, the play was first staged in 1978 starring Jane Lapotaire and won both Olivier and Tony Awards. In 2008, Gems reworked the play for the Donmar Warehouse production which featured an Olivier Award-winning performance by Elena Roger and transferred to the Vaudeville theatre before playing in Argentina.

Gems’s work with the National saw her win an Olivier Award in 1997 for Stanley, a drama charting the life of Cookham artist Stanley Spencer. The play also earned her an Evening Standard Award and a Tony Award after it transferred to Broadway.

The playwright’s other works include Queen Christina, Camille and The Blue Angel for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Tony Award-nominated Marlene. Gems also enjoyed success with her numerous adaptations of classic plays including The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull at the National Theatre, The Lady From The Sea at the Almeida and Uncle Vanya at the Hampstead theatre.

United Agents, which represented Gems, made the following statement: “It is well documented that Pam only took up writing in her forties, but in the years that followed she carved out a reputation as a passionate, political and fiercely funny playwright with an oeuvre that tackled the great women of history, as well as a startling number of original plays and adaptations of work by Ibsen, Chekhov, Lorca and many others. We will remember her wit, her passion and her generosity of spirit.”

CM