Writer: April De Angelis
Director: Michael Oakley
“Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me” yelled Kenneth Williams in the film Carry on Cleo and, sure enough, throughout history, figures branded as infamous have always drawn widespread fascination. In Georgian England, few could have been more worthy of the label than Lord Nelson’s mistress Emma Hamilton, the subject of April De Angelis’ new play, receiving its World Premiere here.
The play opens in 1798. Napoleon’s fleet has just been defeated by the British at the Battle of the Nile and the victorious Admiral Nelson is about to break his journey home with a stopover in Naples. Waiting there is Emma, wife of the British Ambassador, determined to make herself known to the new national hero. Rose Quentin is a vivacious Emma who begins by writing a fan letter and then continues her pursuit with a vigour and determination which could be seen to make her the 18th Century equivalent of a modern-day WAG.
A cautionary note is sounded by Emma’s mother (a rather glum Caroline Quentin), who is herself not of unblemished character. With key characters, most notably Nelson, absent from the stage, the play presents a blinkered view of history and factual details are compressed very awkwardly into a few lines just to provide context. Hovering uncertainly between melodrama and comedy, the play is mostly about mother/daughter relationships, played quite touchingly by a real-life mother and daughter team. Riad Richie adds amusement, skipping in and out as Emma’s Italian servant.
The second part of the play sees an ageing Emma in 1815, penniless and exiled to a barn near Calais a decade after Nelson’s death. She is overweight, swigging wine from the bottle and re-living the perceived glories of the past. As the older Emma, paying a price for her infamy, C Quentin is unleashed to do what she does best, which is to go flat out for laughs. R Quentin takes the rather thankless role of the stuffy Horatia, Nelson’s daughter, who is now living in France with Emma. The mother/daughter themes are thus resumed. Richie switches accents to become the local mayor’s son, destined to be Horatia’s suitor.
Designer Fotini Demou’s elaborate costumes bring a period flavour to this basement theatre not too far from Trafalgar Square. The play was always likely to look faintly ridiculous and director Michael Oakley is absolutely right to seek out comedy wherever he can find it. Some of De Angelis’ coarser humour would not feel out of place in a Carry on… film, but, as a straightforward historical drama, this play would have been unbearable and it is the humour that saves it.
Runs until 7 October 2023