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Obituary: Stephen Jeffreys – ‘playwright who found success with The Libertine’

Stephen Jeffreys Stephen Jeffreys

If Stephen Jeffreys’ relationship with the West End was never quite what he deserved, fringe companies and regional venues were quick to recognise the worth of a playwright whose work was driven by contemporary relevance, an often biting sense of humour and a passionate engagement with his characters’ inner lives.

His acclaimed adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times for four actors – described by The Stage as “a combination of Classics Illustrated and Victorian melodrama” – has regularly been revived, most recently at Oldham Coliseum in 2017, since it was first staged by Pocket Theatre at the Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal, where Jeffreys was writer in residence, in 1982.

Carmen: The Play, a Spanish Civil War-era re-working of Prosper Merimee’s novella and Bizet’s opera also enjoyed a healthy afterlife following its 1984 Fringe First-winning premiere in Edinburgh. Six years earlier, he won his first fringe gong for Mobile 4, a play written while he was teaching at Carlisle College of Art and Design.

Jeffreys came to attention in 1977 when Like Dolls or Angels, a portrait of a carnival manager and his eager-to-please female stunt assistant, won the best new playwright award at the National Student Drama Festival. Its transfer to London’s King’s Head Theatre saw him pick up a Plays and Players award nomination.

Written in 1980, Jubilee Too, a tense, taut piece about the relationship between a mercenary and his ex-army officer recruiter, began a long association with Paines Plough that notably included The Clink, in which an errant Elizabethan comic finds himself in danger of losing his head, staged at London’s Riverside Studios a decade later.

Commissioned by the Hampstead Theatre and first performed in 1989, Valued Friends, his second caustic assessment of Margaret Thatcher-era capitalism after 1983’s critique of city financiers Futures, brought Jeffreys to the belated attention of London critics, earning him most promising playwright awards from the Critics’ Circle and Evening Standard.

Jeffreys showed a remarkable kinship with Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, re-working Richard Brome’s mid-17th-century comedy A Jovial Crew in 1992 for the Royal Shakespeare Company, for whom he provided a new prologue to William Wycherley’s The Country Wife in 1994. He provided a similar introduction for the National Theatre’s 2002 revival of Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer.

More successful was his witty pastiche The Libertine. Set in the court of Charles II and conceived as a companion piece to George Etherege’s Restoration comedy The Man of Mode, it was first seen at the Royal Court in 1994, filmed with Johnny Depp as the titular rake and John Malkovich as the king in 2004 and revived at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2016.

Jeffreys enjoyed a more substantial profile in later years. Co-produced by Out of Joint and the Sydney Theatre Company, The Convict’s Opera, a spiky updating of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera set on a ship bound for Botany Bay, blended folk song and contemporary pop classics and toured widely.

Based on Iain Softley’s film about the early days of the Beatles in Hamburg, the musical Backbeat transferred from Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre to the Duke of York’s in 2011, and his treatment of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist for the RSC in 2016 was hailed by the Stage as “glittering and witty”.

The Alchemist review at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – ‘glittering and witty’

He was literary manager at the Royal Court in the 1990s and later served on its council, on the board of Out of Joint and honorary secretary to the Dramatists’ Club. He was widely admired by younger playwrights who received encouragement in his many workshop sessions and on the courses he taught at RADA and internationally. Among many acknowledging his influence on social media were Tanika Gupta, Simon Stephens, David Eldridge and David Greig, who described him as “a questing, funny, dazzling playwright” and “a hugely generous teacher [who] shaped a generation of UK playwrights”.

Stephen Jeffreys was born in Crouch End, on April 22, 1950 and died on September 17, aged 68. He is survived by his wife, the theatre director Annabel Arden, and two sons.

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