(Lyn Gardner’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/16.)
In her best-known work, Piaf, the playwright Pam Gems, who has died aged 85, developed a new form somewhere between the musical and a play with music to tell the story of the celebrated French singer. Produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1978, Piaf transferred to the West End and Broadway, bringing Gems mainstream success. Jamie Lloyd's revival at the Donmar in London in 2008 gave new life to Piaf with an astonishing lead performance by Elena Roger.
Gems's long association with the RSC included Queen Christina (1977), in which she explored a filmic style of writing and the sadness of childlessness through the life of the Swedish monarch, who was raised as a boy. Camille, produced by the RSC in 1984, echoed Piaf's storyline of a woman seeking sexual and economic independence, with Gems rescuing Alexandre Dumas's story from romantic mythology and serving it up as a desperate tale of the high price women pay for love. Her RSC productions included The Danton Affair (1986) and The Blue Angel (1991), a version of the story made famous by Josef von Sternberg's classic film starring Marlene Dietrich.