Born on 1 August 1925 in Bransgore, Hampshire, Gems studied psychology at Manchester University and only began writing in her forties. After early work for radio and television, she began writing for the stage in the early Seventies and made her West End debut, via the Edinburgh Festival, with 1976’s Dusa Fish Stas and Vi.
Her first play for the Royal Shakespeare Company was 1977’s Queen Christina, a historical drama about the Swedish monarch, which was followed a year later by her most famous piece, Piaf, a play with music about another famous woman from history, French chanteuse Edith Piaf.
The original production of Piaf, starring Jane Lapotaire in the title role, transferred from the RSC to the West End and Broadway, where it won Lapotaire the 1981 Tony Award for Best Actress.
More recently, the Donmar Warehouse’s 30th anniversary revival of Piaf, directed by Jamie Lloyd, won its star Elena Roger the 2009 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical. It also transferred to the West End and was subsequently revived in Spain and in Roger’s native Argentina.
Gems’ greatest successes came when she was writing about real-life figures. Stanley, which premiered at the National Theatre in 1996, centred on the life of painter Stanley Spencer, played by Antony Sher. It won both the Evening Standard and Olivier Awards for Best Play, and also transferred to Broadway, where it was nominated for the Tony for Best Play in 1997.
Two years later, and also via the West End, Gems received more Tony nominations for Marlene, written for Sian Phillips to star as German siren Marlene Dietrich. Marlene is revived later this month at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre, starring Sarah Parks.
Gems’ other original plays included Camille, The Blue Angel, Mrs Pat, Nelson, The Snow Palace, The Danton Affair, Aunt Mary, The Treat, My Warren and Ladybird, Ladybird. She also had success adapting works by the likes of Ibsen, Lorca and Chekhov, including a version of The Cherry Orchard, directed by Jonathan Miller and starring Joanna Lumley at Sheffield Crucible in 2007.