UPDATED, Thu 15 Feb 2007 at 5.30pm: Further tributes to Steven Pimlott have now been added to the following, with changes since the original posting of the story denoted in bold.

Director Steven Pimlott (pictured) - who received an OBE for his services to drama in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours last month (See News, 2 Jan 2007) – died at his home near Colchester last night after a battle with cancer. He was 53.

Though he never smoked, Pimlott was diagnosed with lung cancer last year and rapidly deteriorated, forcing him to withdraw at short notice from developing and directing the West End premiere of Kate Betts’ On the Third Day, the winner of Channel 4’s The Play’s the Thing competition (See News, 25 May 2006). However, in the autumn, he went into remission and the December announcement that he would return to stage work this year seemed to signal an improvement.

Pimlott signed up to direct Zoe Wanamaker in the National Theatre’s upcoming revival of Tennessee Williams’ 1951 play The Rose Tattoo. The opening production in the annual £10 Travelex season in the NT Olivier, it is due to join the NT repertory on 29 March 2007 (previews from 19 March). Rehearsals began earlier this month, but Pimlott absented himself this week when the cancer returned aggressively. He had been hoping to return to the rehearsal room on Monday. NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner will now helm the production, which has been fully conceived and cast by Pimlott.

At a National Theatre press conference today, Hytner spoke movingly of his “oldest friend”, who he had known since 1967 when both were students at Manchester Grammar School and had been trying to lure to the NT since Hytner took over the running of the theatre in 2003. Pimlott’s professional commitments elsewhere prevented earlier South Bank projects, while a planned revival of The Misanthrope last summer was cancelled at the time of Pimlott’s cancer diagnosis. Pimlott, said Hytner, “had the greatest appetite for life of anyone I’ve ever known and a talent for satisfying that appetite…. He went for it in a way that I still find and will always find almost impossible to live up to.”

While Pimlott was a keen actor at school and university at Cambridge, he began his professional career as an opera producer at English National Opera before making his name directing at Opera North with productions of Puccini's La bohème and Tosca, Verdi's Nabucco and Massenet's Werther. Throughout an international career, he continued to work in opera, directing more than 35 operas in Germany, Austria, Australia, Japan, Israel and the UK where recent work with the ENO included The Coronation of Poppea and La Bohème.

Pimlott moved in to mainstream theatre in the late 1980s, working as an associate director at Sheffield Crucible, where he staged plays including Twelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale and Botho Strauss’ The Park. In 1990, he moved on to the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he remained working alongside artistic director Adrian Noble for 12 years, acting as an associate director from 1996 to 2002.

While at the RSC, Pimlott notably directed Samuel West in Hamlet and Richard II, and Alan Bates and Frances de la Tour in Antony and Cleopatra. His many other RSC credits included Julius Caesar, Measure for Measure, Richard III, As You Like It, Murder in the Cathedral, Camino Real, Moliere’s The Learned Ladies, Michael Hastings’ Unfinished Business and Robert Holman’s Bad Weather.

In 2003, Pimlott – along with Martin Duncan and Ruth Mackenzie – took over the running of Chichester Festival Theatre, where, amongst other things, he directed The Seagull, Nathan the Wise and David Warner in King Lear. After just three innovative summer seasons, the artistic director triumvirate surprised many with their collective resignation (See News, 3 Aug 2005).

Pimlott also enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber, for whom he directed Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in the West End, on Broadway and on film, as well as the West End and Broadway premieres of Bombay Dreams, the Bollywood musical with a score by Indian AR Rahman. Pimlott’s other musicals included Doctor Dolittle and the 1989 UK premiere of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, starring Philip Quast at the National Theatre.

Amongst Pimlott’s other stage credits were The York Mystery Plays, Ring Around the Moon (Royal Exchange), Phyllis Nagy's Never Land (Royal Court) and, most recently in the West End, the 2005 reinvention of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. He was also an accomplished oboist and fanatical about Gilbert & Sullivan. In 2001, he fulfilled a personal dream by appearing in a D’Oyly Carte production of The Pirates of Penzance at the Savoy Theatre.

In a 2003 interview with Whatsonstage.com at the time of his Chichester appointment, Pimlott was asked why he wanted to be a director. He replied: “I don't know if I've ever consciously asked that question. I mean, theatre has been part of my life as long as I can remember - first going to see it and then as an actor, through school and university. I used to act more than I directed and I still enjoy acting. I think probably I just got into it like you do. When I left university and went round for jobs, the first one I could get was as a staff producer at the English National Opera on the directing side. That was where I learnt - if you can learn such a thing - how to be a director. I'm good at talking, too. I have the gift of the gab and that's a good thing as a director.”

Born on 18 April 1953, in Stockport, Pimlott died on 20 February 2007. He is survived by his opera singer wife Daniela Bechly, two sons and a daughter.

Other tributes to Steven Pimlott

RSC artistic director Michael Boyd, said: “Steven’s footprint on British theatre was and is as wide as anybody's. His abilities, taste and success embraced opera, Shakespeare, bold new writing, the new European classical repertoire, Gilbert and Sullivan, and the popular modern musical. His style ranged from extravagant flamboyance to high European elegance, to stripped-down purity. His storytelling was always blazingly clear, intelligent and human. He was a good musician and actor and a powerful dramaturg as well as one of the best directors of his generation. He followed me into Sheffield's Crucible Theatre under Clare Venables and I followed him into the RSC. While we were associates together, I found him inspirational, challenging, enormously entertaining and a good friend. As a fellow director of a theatre company, I admired his real achievement as artistic director at Chichester, and took courage from his success with creative ensemble. He leaves many friends behind at the RSC who will miss him dearly.”

West End producer Sonia Friedman said: "I've known Steven for years but really got to know him last year when I had the huge privilege of working closely with him on The Play's The Thing. He was without question one of the brightest, kindest, most generous people I've ever been lucky enough to meet. His death is a huge loss to our theatre, and at this time my thoughts are with his family and close friends."

Pimlott’s agent Harriet Cruickshank, said: "I've known Steven for 20 years and he was a very talented director and a wonderful friend. It's been a joy."

NOTE: Please feel free to post your own tributes to Steven Pimlott on the Whatsonstage.com Discussion Forum.

- by Terri Paddock