Infamous at Jermyn Street Theatre review: leaves you wanting much, much more

 (Steve Gregson)
(Steve Gregson)

This underpowered attempt to drag the infamous Lady Emma Hamilton out of her lover Nelson’s shadow relies on the real-life, mother-daughter double-act of Caroline and Rose Quentin to pique interest.

The two are neatly deployed by writer April De Angelis and director Michael Oakley to express the decay of fortunes, reputations and flesh. But the show’s easy wit and elegantly simple structure can’t disguise the fact it has very little to say.

In the first half, set in Naples in 1798, Rose Quentin plays the exultantly sensual Emma who, having climbed from poverty and prostitution to a position of royal favour, feels that seducing England’s naval hero is her duty and her destiny. Even though they’re both married. Caroline is Emma’s derided, exhausted mother, who warns: “Take a look at me, ‘cause that’s you one day.”

We laugh because, yes, in the second act, in 1815, Caroline plays the destitute, derelict older Emma, still trading on her supposed allure while living in a Calais cowshed: and Rose is prim, exasperated Horatia, Emma’s unacknowledged daughter by the late admiral. They’ve been abandoned by the state and Nelson’s heirs after his death at Trafalgar. Can Horatia escape the traps that snared Emma?

 (Steve Gregson)
(Steve Gregson)

In the early scenes, mother and daughter improbably summarise recent history to each other, recap Nelson’s career and list Emma’s past lovers as if calling a register. There’s earthy humour throughout, with talk of ripe pineapples and dried-up bagpipes, sometimes verging on bluntness. “I don’t know what came over me,” Emma says, returning from a night with Nelson.

The sequence of semi-naked, classical “attitudes” that Emma performed becomes a recurring symbol. Emma invented herself, clawing upwards through the roles that Georgian society allowed her – maid, prostitute, mistress, muse, trophy wife – by sheer will and lucky beauty.

Yet she remains a two-dimensional figure of fun here. Whether played by Rose or Caroline she is always arrogant, erotically self-obsessed, delusional. The older Quentin is a subtle comic actress, and it looks at times like her daughter could be too, but here they’re stuck in glib, self-mocking mode.

Oakley’s production deals in pleasingly simplistic juxtapositions. Deploying a real-life mother and daughter to portray fictional versions of real mothers and daughters is just the most obvious. Between the first and second half, the wooden third actor, Riad Richie, is promoted from servant to mayor’s son. He also physically transforms Fotini Dimou’s set, folding back elegant paneling to reveal weathered barnyard planks, to much ooh-ing and aah-ing from the audience.

Ultimately this is a short, tight, mildly diverting show. It’s kind of fun to see Quentin mere et fille spar with one another, and to be reminded of what Emma Hamilton achieved and overcame. But like her, I wanted much, much more.

Jermyn Street Theatre, to 7 Oct,