Adam Brace obituary

<span>Photograph: Suki Dhanda</span>
Photograph: Suki Dhanda

On the night of the 2023 Olivier awards ceremony at the Royal Albert Hall, Adam Brace, nominated as a director in two categories, was ensconced in a restaurant with a couple of his oldest friends on the other side of town. He was planning his next show, oblivious to the critical or award-yielding hullabaloo it might eventually attract.

Brace, who was one of the most creative and influential operators on the fringe – in London and Edinburgh – over the past two decades, seemed immune to the trappings of stardom. If your priority in your work was winning awards, or even being nominated for them, he felt, you were going seriously wrong.

He took a profound sense of pleasure in the whole process of making a show, from concept, inception and experimentation to the business of completing a script and setting the performance in stone. After starting out as a playwright, Brace, who has died aged 43 after complications following a stroke, found his true metier as a director, co-creator and dramaturg.

Related: Adam Brace had a magic touch for comedy and theatre – both worlds will mourn his death | Brian Logan

In 2008, at Sam Hodges’ newly formed HighTide festival in Halesworth, Suffolk, his play Stovepipe caused a critical sensation at its premiere in a converted, low-ceilinged art gallery as it followed the mishaps of three British soldiers hired by private security firms as mercenaries in the aftermath of the Iraq war “against terror”, of which he thoroughly disapproved.

Co-presented by the Bush (run at that time by Josie Rourke) and the National Theatre, it drew even wider audiences in an inspirationally “found space” in the old W12 shopping centre defiantly positioned opposite the spanking new Westfield mall in Shepherd’s Bush, west London.

Eight years later, Brace’s They Drink It in the Congo (2016) at the Almeida theatre in Islington created an even greater interrogation of liberal guilt at a London arts festival designed to raise awareness of the deadliest conflict – in the chaotic Democratic Republic of the Congo – since the second world war.

Tellingly, Brace told the Stage that his experience on this play had put him off writing plays for good. He realised he was more interested in engineering, pioneering and nurturing new works than he was in writing them, and he was moving steadily on to the comedy circuit at the Soho theatre in London where, from 2016, he was a dramaturg – that is, script-fixer – and associate director.

All the same, with his director of these two startling and ambitious epics, Michael Longhurst, he produced a half-hour monologue, Midnight Your Time (2011), beautifully performed by Diana Quick, that visited another political hotspot, Palestine. Quick, as a retired lawyer in north London, conducted a one-way, bordering on the desperate, conversation with her “remote” daughter working in Hebron.

When this piece, and Quick’s performance, were revived by the Donmar Warehouse and transmitted online in May 2020, the third month of the pandemic lockdown, it acquired an even further metaphorical resonance as an expression of the helplessness, and distance between people, that we all felt to a greater or lesser degree.

By this time, Brace was fully immersed in his work with comedians and dramatic monologists, bracketing genres in such powerful new work as Liz Kingsman’s One Woman Show (2021) – a brilliant, parodistic riff on Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag that took off with canny satirical intent – and Haley McGee’s Age Is a Feeling (2022) – a beautiful, seminal-moments-in-a-life sort of a performance artwork.

Adam was born in London, the son of George Brace, an architect, and his wife Nikki (nee Sturdy), a former floor manager at the BBC studios in Pebble Mill, Birmingham. George was knocked off his bicycle and killed, aged 27, when Nikki was four months pregnant with Adam. She later married one of George’s old schoolfriends, Nigel Hopkins, an accountant, in 1987, and they had two sons, Tim and Alex.

A key figure in Adam’s life was his grandmother, Diane Brace, an educational and political activist whose influence informed many of Adam’s obsessions and productions. He grew up in Bookham, Surrey, and was educated at Downsend school and St John’s school, in Leatherhead.

As a teenager, his part-time job was stuffing envelopes with publicity material at the Thorndike theatre, Leatherhead, where Nikki was a PA to the theatre manager. Adam took a degree in drama at the University of Kent; he then knocked around for a couple of years teaching English as a foreign language in South Korea, and did a brief stint as an actor in children’s theatre in Kuala Lumpur. On his return, he worked variously as a gardener, security guard and journalist on the Irish Post – which fired him after he inquired, at a Q and A after a press screening, why the film he had just sat through was so thoroughly and irredeemably bad.

Alex Edelman and Adam Brace
Adam Brace, right, in New York in 2021 with the US comedian Alex Edelman, whose one-man shows Brace directed. Photograph: Broadway World/Shutterstock

He then embarked on a master’s degree in writing for performance at Goldsmiths, University of London, but did not graduate as he had not paid his fees. He went on a “holiday” in Jordan, where he researched Stovepipe in a series of interviews with military and security personnel in the bars of the capital city, Amman. A friend submitted the script to Hodges at HighTide, to Brace’s initial annoyance, as he felt the play was unfinished.

After a further period abroad – this time in Russia, where he worked for a year on a film for a wealthy producer, not so much an oligarch as a “mini-garch”, he said – he gravitated towards comedy. From 2014 onwards, he directed all the one-man shows of the whip-smart American Jewish standup Alex Edelman, whose latest performance, Just for Us, recently seen at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London, is booked on Broadway for the coming season. Edelman was one of many comedians who benefited from Adam’s note-giving sessions – notes that infused joy and precision, said Edelman, into the performance and invariably improved its dynamic and trajectory.

Adam met his partner, Rebecca Biscuit – one half of the Sh!t Theatre duo with Louise Mothersole – who had been at university with his brother, Tim, when he helped out on Tim’s show Burger Van in 2012. He worked on and directed eight of Sh!t Theatre’s shows. Two of Sh!t Theatre’s latest shows – Sh!t Theatre Drink Rum With Expats and Evita Too – earned them the critical tag of “an unlikely pair of state-of-the-nation playwrights”. Brace himself must have been pleased with this reaction, while preparing himself for the unwelcome likelihood of an award or two.

He is survived by Rebecca, Nikki, Nigel, Tim and Alex.

• Adam George Brace, writer and director, born 25 March 1980; died 29 April 2023