APril De Angelis’ strong point is writing about misunderstood (or perhaps misunderstood) women, all ahead of the times in which they lived. Relatively recent examples include the feisty female protagonists of his beautiful stage adaptation of My Brilliant Friend and a playful reworking of the life story of fictional sex worker Fanny Hill. The latest in a long line of flamboyant women – whose most attractive qualities often end up tearing them down – is the “infamous” Emma Hamilton. The daughter of a blacksmith, she was a muse to many and, most memorably, the long-time mistress of Lord Nelson.
The highlight of Michael Oakley’s production is the casting of mother and daughter Caroline Quentin and Rose Quentin, who play Hamilton at different stages of his life. The first act takes place in a gold-lined salon, where Hamilton (Rose Quentin) lives a luxurious life with her wealthy British ambassador husband. The couple is stationed in Naples: Vesuvius smolders in the distance and a doomed love affair with Lord Nelson awaits them. Hamilton’s mother (a straight-talking Caroline Quentin) has come along for the ride and accompanies her daughter’s every excitable cry with a knowing, weary sigh.
The first half is something to behold, thanks to a nuanced performance from Caroline Quentin as the tired Mrs. Cadogan, radiating the feeling of a hard life endured, of violent blows received. At one point, tired of her daughter’s willful naivety, she mutters darkly, “Take a good look at me, because it’s you one day.” ” But while Ms. Cadogan intrigues, Hamilton does not, as Rose Quentin struggles to find much beneath the surface and her performance seems strident at times.
In the second half, an aging Hamilton – along with his child Horatia – cowers in a barn in Calais, destitute and forgotten after Nelson’s death. Caroline Quentin fidgets, sighs, and downs wine, but it all feels like an act, suddenly more of a sketch show than a game. Most disappointing of all, the dynamic between the mother and daughter of the two halves seems stuck on autopilot. There’s lots of bickering, occasional flashes of affection, but little insight.