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Obituary: Pam Brighton

As co-founder of DubbelJoint Theatre Company and head of the BBC’s radio drama department in Belfast, Pam Brighton was a significant and often controversial figure in Northern Ireland’s theatre for much of the last 30 years.

Born in Bradford, West Yorkshire, she studied at the London School of Economics before venturing into theatre as an actor in the late 1960s with Brighton Coalition. Although acting increasingly gave way to directing, later screen credits included Ken Loach’s Days of Hope (1975) and the film version of Tom Kempinski’s Duet for One (1986).

In the early 1970s she led the youth programme at London’s Royal Court Theatre, where she also co-directed Harald Mueller’s Big Wolf with William Gaskill in 1972. The same year, she was responsible for the first major London revival of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (Young Vic) and began a long association with the Half Moon theatre company, initially as its artistic director. There, her staunch, Marxist-leaning politics began to make itself felt as she moved towards topical polemics such as Shane Connaughton’s George Davis is Innocent OK (1975) and Nigel Williams’ WCPC (1982).

In the interim, she followed her second husband, the director Guy Sprung, to Canada, where she directed Eve Merriam’s The Club (1977) in Toronto before joining the Stratford Ontario Festival in 1980. She was one of a quartet briefly appointed to run the annual event before being ousted when management decided to approach John Dexter instead.

Returning to the UK, Brighton studied law (qualifying in 1986) and maintained a theatre profile, directing Pam Gems’ Queen Christina (Tricycle Theatre, 1982), Peter Sheridan’s Diary of a Hunger Strike (Hull Truck, 1982) and John McGrath’s Six Men of Dorset (7:84, 1984).

By then, Brighton had made her first visit to Northern Ireland to direct Martin Lynch and Marie Jones’ Lay Up Your Ends for the newly formed Charabanc Theatre Company. On joining the BBC’s radio drama department in Belfast (eventually becoming its head), she championed a succession of ex-Republican prisoners-turned-writers – including Danny Morrison, Brian Campbell and Laurence McKeown – as her own politics became more pronounced. She also commissioned Gary Mitchell, a writer who gave voice to the Protestant experience of the Troubles.

A pugnacious character with what one local actor described as “a Marmite personality, easier to dislike than like,” Brighton’s bullish abrasiveness and political allegiances divided the region’s theatre community, her nationalist sympathies making her a target for criticism from others pursuing different (or no) agendas.

In 1991, with Jones and the actor Mark Lambert, she founded the notionally cross-border, cross-sectarian DubbelJoint Theatre Company. It touched a nerve in a divided region struggling towards peace after decades of internecine violence. Early productions included Connaughton and Jones’ Hang All the Harpers (1991) and Jones’ adaptation of The Government Inspector, seen at the Tricycle Theatre in 1994.

With Jones’ full-length monologue A Night in November (1994), DubbelJoint entered a period in which critical approval was matched by commercial success. Women on the Verge of HRT and Stones in His Pockets followed in 1996, both enjoying West End runs and countless revivals.

When Stones in His Pockets was revived in a new version by Jones and her husband, the actor-director Ian McElhinney, in 1999 (it subsequently ran for four years in the West End), Brighton sued Jones for recognition as co-author of the piece but lost her case in the high court in 2004. The resulting fall-out included Brighton being declared bankrupt and quickened the demise of DubbelJoint.

In 2010, Brighton returned to Canada to direct Monica Parker’s Sex, Pies and a Few White Lies in Toronto.

Pamela Dallas Brighton was born on October 22, 1946 and died on February 22, aged 68. She is survived by a son and two grandchildren.

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