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infamous (Susan Elkin reviews)

Show: Infamous

Society: London (professional shows)

Venue: Jermyn Street Theatre. 16B Jermyn Street, St. James’s, London SW1Y 6ST




4 stars

Jermyn Street Theatre has always punched above its weight. And now, under Stella Powell-Jones’s artistic directorship it seems to be punching harder than ever. To stage the premiere of a new April de Angelis play is quite something. To cast it with talented mother and daughter, Caroline Quentin and Rose Quentin, splendidly directed by Michael Oakley, is definitely Something Else.

Most of us know the outline of this story. Emma Hamilton (rags to riches to rags) was Horatio Nelson’s adored mistress and for a while her flag flew as high up the mast as it possibly could. Then he was killed at Trafalgar in 1805 after which her fortunes waned, partly because the British government ignored the wishes of its most famous war hero. There was a daughter, though, who was proud to be Nelson’s child but in denial about the identity of her mother.

De Angelis has created a very clever double narrative exploration of motherhood out of this. In Act 1 we see Emma (Rose Quentin – glittering)  in Naples in 1798 about to seduce Nelson, more or less with her elderly husband’s tacit agreement. Her forthright mother, who speaks like a working woman from Cheshire (Caroline Quentin – down-to-earth and funny) acts as her housekeeper. Emma has already borne, and effectively abandoned, a child back in Britian.

Then in Act 2 comes a neat coup de theatre. We’ve slid forward 17 years. Caroline Quentin is now the aging, impoverished but still sparkily flamboyant Emma, alcohol dependent and in denial. Rose Quentin, now plainly dressed, practical and angry is her teenage daughter Horatia struggling with their life in the outhouse of a farm – actually a barn – in France.

Of course it makes sense. These women  across three generations would have looked alike and their behaviour would mirror, or react against, each other. And the powerful chemistry of the dialogue between them, including the pauses, is partly down to De Angelis’s sharp writing. As in Playhouse Creatures, she brings a historical situation to life by using language which is completely current. That  sense of communication, though, also relates to the casting of a real life mother and daughter. These are two people who know one another very well at every level and it shows.

The third cast member is Riad Richie and he’s hugely enjoyable too. He plays an unlikely, pushy Italian courtier in the first act and a gently gallant French farmer’s son in the second. Richie has fun with two exaggerated contrasting accents and skips around flirting with the audience. He even makes 2023 announcements and moves the furniture in role. He’s a refreshing contrast to the two women not least because his presence changes the dynamic and adds balance.

Best not to miss this one.


First published by Sardines:

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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