By the time Pam Gems’ Dead Fish – a bitingly sardonic tale of four very different women ricocheting around a tiny shared flat, first seen at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – transferred to the West End as Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi in 1976, she had been writing plays for more than 40 years, staging her first at the precocious age of eight. The success of the piece positioned Gems at the vanguard of a generation of female playwrights that challenged and changed the profile, the point and the purpose of women in contemporary theatre. Although her professional career had begun just four years earlier with a piece for children, Betty’s Wonderful Christmas, at the Cockpit Theatre, Dusa was her eleventh staged piece and brought into focus themes and arguments influenced by feminism and sexual politics that had already begun to emerge in earlier works for the Almost Free Theatre (where, in 1973 she formed the Women’s Theatre Group), the Roundhouse, the Leicester Haymarket and, most notably, in her 1975 adaptation of Marianne Auricoste’s My Name is Rosa Luxemburg at the Soho Poly.
Other incisive and elegantly provocative portraits of historical and literary figures were to follow. In 1977, Queen Christina was the first play by a woman to be staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company, for whom, the following year, she wrote what was to become her most popular work, the unflinching, warts-and-all dissection of the life and career of French chanteuse Edith Piaf, which was revived by the Donmar Warehouse in 2008 before transferring to the Vaudeville Theatre.
She returned to the RSC in 1984 for her revisionist take on Dumas’ Camille, and again in 1991 to launch the Other Place with The Blue Angel.
She was twice nominated for Tony Awards – for the Olivier Award-winning Stanley, about the British artist Stanley Spencer, first seen at the National Theatre in 1996, and Marlene, her musical about the film icon Marlene Dietrich, which premiered at the Oldham Coliseum the same year.
Her profile of the Spanish Republican activist Dolores Ibarruri, Pasionaria, was seen at the Newcastle Playhouse in 1985, her interest in headline-grabbing historic figures continuing late into her career with Nelson at the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton in 2005, and Mrs Pat, about the actress Pat Campbell, at York’s Theatre Royal the following year.
She demonstrated a deft gift as a translator and adapter of literary texts, producing memorable versions of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (for the Hampstead Theatre in 1978) and The Cherry Orchard (Sheffield Crucible, 2007), Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea (Almeida, 2003), and Lorca’s Yerma at Manchester’s Royal Exchange the same year.
Born Iris Pamela Price on August 1 1925 in the Hampshire village of Bransgore, she read psychology at Manchester University before working as a research assistant at the BBC. It was there she began to write scripts for television before turning her attention to the theatre. The last of her nearly 50 plays, Winterlove and Despatches, remain unstaged but both received readings at the Drill Hall in 2009.
She wrote two novels loosely drawing on autobiography in the mid eighties. She died, aged 85, on May 13 and is survived by her husband of 52 years and four children, one of whom, Jonathan, has also established himself as a playwright.