Infamous at Jermyn Street Theatre | Review

Infamous, attempts to tell the story of Lady (Emma) Hamilton’s life, a woman best known for her relationship with Britain’s prize naval war hero, Lord Horatio Nelson.

Rose Quentin and Riad Richie in Infamous at Jermyn Street Theatre. Photography by Steve Gregson.
Rose Quentin and Riad Richie in Infamous at Jermyn Street Theatre. Photography by Steve Gregson.

The problem is it doesn’t take her seriously, reduces her to an object of folly – think celebrity puppet from the now defunct Spitting Image series – a character awash in narcissism, hysteria and sway, and makes no mention of a courageous 13-year-old Emma Hart who travels to 18th Century London on her own, places herself in dangerous situations, but does what she must to support herself.

Why a playwright as brilliant as April De Angelis chooses such a narrow, air-headed portrait of Emma and makes no mention of her precarious early life, one replete with struggle but suffused with the will to succeed, poses a huge question mark.

The play begins with a protracted conversation between Lady Hamilton (Rose Quentin), now married to the wealthy Lord William Hamilton, and her mother, Mrs Cadogan (Caroline Quentin), ensconced in Emma’s salon in Naples, Italy. The design of the salon itself (Fotini Dimou), with slightly worn chaise longue, tacky pink writing desk and Italianate smudged gold-leaf wall design, is a harbinger of hard times to come.

Emma is awaiting the arrival of Lord Nelson who’s been commissioned to protect Naples from a French naval invasion. The dialogue between Emma and her mother is awash with historical information readily available from Wikipedia or any TV history channel, and provides little information about the inner life of our heroine. The women’s often accusatory banter is interrupted only by the appearance of Vincenzo (Riad Richie), a love-sick Neapolitan servant, who repeats the directorial intent of the play (Michael Oakley), which is that all three characters are caricatures of human beings devoid of any emotional truth.

Act Two begins with a bloated, gray-haired Lady Hamilton (now played by Caroline Quentin), drunk, bed-ridden and muddle-headed. Lord Nelson is long dead, as is Emma’s husband Lord Hamilton, and she is living in a hovel in Calais, France, with her adolescent daughter, Horatia (Rose Quentin), sired by Lord Nelson. Their conversation is interrupted by Jacques Fornier (Riad Richie), who does his best with another wincing foreigner-stereotype, this time as a Frenchman.

However, Caroline Quentin’s talents greatly improve the second act. She brings Lady Hamilton to life as a flesh and blood character, rather than a frivolous shallow vessel, as does Rose Quentin’s Horatia, who wishes to disentangle herself from her mother’s self-destruction.

Which introduces a conclusion far from playwright De Angelis’ intention.

Infamous is much more about the inherent difficulties in mother-daughter relationships, clearly emphasised in Act One, with the long-winded, petty jealousies and accusations of failed parenting volleyed back and forth between mother and daughter. And again in Act Two, with similar frustrations and accusations hurled between the ageing and disheveled Lady Hamilton and her daughter Horatia.

An opportunity to present a fresh perspective on Lady Hamilton has been sorely missed.


Review by Loretta Monaco

Emma Hamilton is the name on everyone’s lips. Her Attitudes are the latest dance craze sweeping Europe, inspiring a generation of artists from Romney to Goethe. But Emma doesn’t want to be somebody’s muse – she wants to be the somebody. With rumours of Nelson’s imminent arrival swirling around Naples, Emma knows exactly which pose to strike to catch his attention and leave her mark on history. Or so she thinks…

The extraordinary life of Emma Hamilton bursts out of the history books and onto the stage in this witty and vivacious world premiere. April De Angelis reunites with director Michael Oakley to set the record straight on one of the most famous figures in Georgian society. Olivier Award-nominated Caroline Quentin stars alongside her daughter Rose Quentin, and Riad Richie.