Louise Page obituary

Michael Coveney

The varied and prolific career of the playwright Louise Page, who has died of cancer aged 65, was a rarity in the British theatre. She started out winning awards and rave reviews at the Royal Court and the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1980s, wrote for The Archers on BBC radio throughout the 1990s and provided plays for many regional and touring companies.

The fact that, surprisingly, she never had a play produced in the West End or at the National Theatre, was no concern of hers. She was a practical, energetic professional writer with commitment, first of all, to the project in hand, not to any cultural “status” that might or might not accrue. She wrote episodes of Crown Court, Doctors and Bad Girls on television, and her work on radio included several new plays, and highly praised adaptations of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1991) and Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph (1996) .

Latterly, while teaching playwriting at the University of Salford, where she was renowned for her participatory enthusiasm in class and boundless erudition in the lecture hall, Page adapted Agatha Christie’s Philomel Cottage story as Love from a Stranger (2010) at the Mill at Sonning, Hugh Walpole’s roistering Rogue Herries (2013) for the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, and scripted a community project in Lincoln, Green Fields Beyond (2016), for the centenary anniversary of the first world war.

Although Page was born in London, her family moved around. After periods in St Albans, Hertfordshire, and Wirral, they settled eventually in Sheffield, where her father, John Page, was a professor of building science at the university and her mother, Anita (nee Lovell), a sometime magistrate. The oldest of four, Louise was educated at Hunters Bar primary and High Storrs in Sheffield before taking degrees in theatre studies at the University of Wales in Cardiff and Birmingham University.

Her first notable play, Tissue (1981), at the ICA, was the first stage play about breast cancer. She was already on the Royal Court radar, where Max Stafford-Clark championed her work, as he did that of many emergent women playwrights in the 1980s, notably Caryl Churchill. Salonika (1982), a poetic meditation on the first world war, involving an ageing mother and daughter on the Greek beach where their husband/father died in action 60-odd years earlier, retains a classic status.

David Edgar, whose playwriting option Page had taken on her Birmingham course, says that the entrance of the dead soldier on the beach, taking the play back to 1918, was the best in postwar British drama. And Danny Boyle’s production boasted superb performances by Gwen Nelson and Sheila Burrell as the widow and her daughter, whose ruminations on love and loss are prompted by the presence of a naked boy who sells his blood and semen to the locals.

The play won the George Devine award and Page then edited the research of actors and the letters of David Tinker, a disillusioned patriotic soldier in the Falklands war, for Falkland Sound/Voces de Malvinas (1983). She changed gear completely for Real Estate (1984) at the Tricycle, Kilburn, but the domestic psychodrama in the Oxfordshire countryside – beautifully designed and lit – had another strong mother/daughter relationship in the performances of Brenda Bruce as an estate agent and Charlotte Cornwell as a pregnant entrepreneur.

For the RSC in its Stratford-upon-Avon studio, The Other Place, Page wrote the utterly irresistible Golden Girls (1984), opening a can of worms in athletics (drugs, sponsorship, tarnished Olympic ideals) while celebrating the joyous athleticism of the women themselves, led by Josette Simon, who had been badly let down by her Geordie middle-distance running hero, played by Kenneth Branagh.

This tumultuous decade included a vivid and original Beauty and the Beast (1985) for the Women’s Theatre Trust at the Old Vic, and ended with Diplomatic Wives (1989) at the Watford Palace, which focused on a diplomatic couple – played by Cornwell and Will Knightley – balancing career opportunity with personal relationships when they are visited by their former history tutor (Anna Carteret), who is also the husband’s ex-lover. The play won the first Critics’ Circle JT Grein award.

Page’s later work included Hawks and Doves (1993) at the Nuffield, Southampton, a love story across an age and class divide, played by Gillian Bevan and Michael Simkins, which might well have reflected her marriage that year to a fellow writer on The Archers, Christopher Hawes, 15 years her senior; and Another Nine Months (1995) for the women’s prison company Clean Break.

Her last play, Shaken, yet to be produced, is said to be a brutally honest account of living with the onset of her husband’s Parkinson’s disease, with two voices for each of them, spoken and unspoken. Typically for Page, another project awaiting a take-up is an adaptation of Margery Allingham’s The Fashion in Shrouds, mixing murder, betrayal and high fashion in the 1930s.

More poignant ghosts were raised in Green Fields Beyond, which was researched and written with Lincoln locals and focused on the women at home working in factories where the British army tanks were developed and built.

Louise and Christopher had settled happily in Youlgreave, near Bakewell, in Derbyshire. She was one of those people always doing nine things at once. She loved Ireland, kept bees, made jam, and was an active fellow of the Royal Literary Fund, which helps indigent writers.

She is survived by Christopher, and by her three younger siblings, Stephen, Mark and Sarah, and nine nephews and nieces.

• Louise Mary Page, playwright, born 7 March 1955; died 30 May 2020