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Obituary: Philip Osment – ‘Actor, director and playwright who was a mainstay of Gay Sweatshop’

Philip Osment

As an actor, director and prolific playwright, Philip Osment, who has died at the age of 66, played a leading role in British theatre over the last four decades, engaging with issues of sexuality, gender, race and class as social politics became ever more diverse and disputed.

More recently, his work focused on schools, young offenders, multiculturalism and mental health, although Osment, for all his crusading zeal, could never have been accused of tub-thumping, browbeating or pedalling a line other than inclusivity.

Born and raised on a farm in North Devon – rich pickings for his early plays – he read modern languages at Oxford University before training as an actor at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art.

He became a mainstay of Gay Sweatshop after joining the company in 1977 for Noel Greig and Drew Griffiths’ As Time Goes By and was seen in several productions at the Half Moon Theatre before the end of the decade.

The Stage hailed his Lancelot Gobbo (Twelfth Night) for Shared Experience in 1980 as “a true clown”, with Osment going on to form a long-lasting professional relationship with director Mike Alfreds, providing a haunted Konstantin in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull the following year.

The Stage’s review of Philip Osment in Chekhov’s The Seagull in 1981
The Stage’s review of Philip Osment in Chekhov’s The Seagull in 1981

Drawing heavily on his childhood in Devon, his first play, Telling Tales, was seen at the Soho Poly in 1983, where The Stage admired its “art and skill and a simplicity of approach”.

The same year he was seen as a Mouldy Head in Greig’s Poppies for Gay Sweatshop and directed its 1985 revival marking the company’s 10th anniversary.

His breakthrough play, This Island’s Mine, a panoramic take on contemporary gay and lesbian experience, immigration and class, was toured by Gay Sweatshop in 1988. Clear-eyed and celebratory, it was marked by an honesty and humanity that confronted the censorious Section 28 legislation newly introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Its first revival by Ardent Theatre Company was still running at the King’s Head Theatre at the time of his death, in May 2019, although Osment, in failing health, managed to attend its press night.

In the early 1990s, Osment began writing plays for schools, youth theatres and younger audiences and wrote his Devon Trilogy for Mike Alfreds and the Cambridge Theatre Company. The first part, The Dearly Beloved (1993), won a Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award, the second, What I Did in the Holidays (1995) gaining a nomination.

Continuing to write and direct, he worked with small-scale companies including Red Ladder, Neti-Neti and, on a regular basis, Theatre Centre. Wise Guys, a play for schools co-produced by Red Ladder and Theatre Centre, was nominated for a Barclays Theatre Award in 1997.

There was work for regional reps in Exeter and Bristol before he reunited with Alfreds for 1999’s Buried Alive. Simultaneously played out on a set divided into multiple rooms, The Stage suggested it “invented a new style of theatre, which might be called ‘stage impressionism’.” It was also seen at the Hampstead Theatre in 2001.

At the turn of the century, Osment produced the well-received Little Violet and the Angel for seven to 11-year-olds that was a joint winner of the Peggy Ramsay Play Award. Duck!, his adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, proved a success for the Unicorn Theatre in 2007.

With the Graeae Theatre Company, he directed Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck (2000), Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding (2001) and Moliere’s George Dandin, for which he also provided the translation, in 2006.

In 2004, he translated Cervantes’ Pedro, the Great Pretender, directed by Alfreds, for the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, and directed disabled actor Andrew McLay’s one-man show Watch the Spider at the Ovalhouse in London.

More recently, Whole, a “remarkable piece of strikingly good theatre” focusing on the experiences of young people and built through extended workshops with the Liverpool-based 20 Stories High, secured him a Writers’ Guild Award in 2013.

He directed Sudha Bhuchar’s My Name Is, a moving portrait of a young Scottish girl leaving home to live in Pakistan, at the Arcola Theatre in 2014 and on radio the following year.

Osment’s career-long commitment to theatre as a platform for social change saw him co-found Playing On in 2010 with Jim Pope to work with disenfranchised communities. Originally developed with the National Youth Theatre, Inside, the company’s debut at London’s Roundhouse, was a portrait of seven young fathers negotiating life in jail.

If his work was often issue-led, it was always character-centred, Osment putting pen to paper only after extensive research, as in 2008’s Mad Blud, an exploration of knife crime and street violence devised with Theatre Royal Stratford East’s youth group.

Hearing Things, the result of a five-year-long partnership with psychiatrists, mental health workers and patients, was staged by Playing On in 2016 and revived at the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham earlier this year.

His contributions to radio included original plays and adaptations of EM Forster’s Maurice (2007), HG Wells’ The Time Machine (2009) and John Osborne’s A Patriot for Me (2015).

In 2016, he underwent a successful lung transplant but in May a bout of pneumonia led to his being hospitalised, where he died little more than a week after the opening night of This Island’s Mine.

Philip Osment was born on March 1, 1953 and died on May 24.

This Island’s Mine review at King’s Head, London – ‘worthy revival’

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