Lady Emma Hamilton was the talk of the town. Her beauty won over the hearts of Europe. She became a celebrity after her performances of posed ‘attitudes' inspired many artists and unfortunately one too many married men. After cheating on her husband (Sir William Hamilton) with household hero (Nelson) Emma thought she would reach the highest social status but her plan backfired. Her fall from grace left her branded as the common mistress of Lord Nelson. Her affair turned into a public scandal and the plan quickly unraveled... 

Director Michael Oakley has this premiere by its tail. The play follows Emma Hamilton's timeline. It tells the story well without feeling like a history lesson. In act one a young Emma Hamilton in 1798 is played by Rose Quentin. She transforms Emma Hamilton from a shy painting girl, into a woman that commands every space she enters. While she's beautiful and speaks of it often. She's wounded by her past and Rose Quentin plays beautifully in such an intimate space. Rose's real-life mother Caroline Quentin plays her mother Mrs Cadogan. A commoner who encouraged her daughter to make her place in the world. Emma was born into poverty as the daughter of a Cheshire blacksmith. At an early age, Emma moved away to London to work as a prostitute on Brewer Street. She eventually made her way into a marriage with Sir William Hamilton, the British Ambassador. 

Her mother has concerns about Emma's ambitions and tries to discourage her despite living in her daughter's luxury. The two have an interesting power struggle but ultimately Emma doesn't listen to her mothers advice. The arguments are nicely broken up by Emma's servant Vincenzo, played fiercely by Riad Richie. He fawns over Lady Hamilton, their open flirting with each other reflects her risky character and forecasts what's to come. 

Caroline Quentin plays an older Emma Hamilton in Act Two as we open in 1815. Immediately upon her entrance into a dilapidated barn, the audience are laughing. The young lustrous Emma from Act One is no more. Rose Quentin assumes the role of Emma Hamilton's love child. It's witty. The Quentins play so beautifully with the push and pull of the complex relationship. The actresses have a knack for comedy and the momentum doesn't drop despite the wordy text. 

The set by Fotini Dimou was impressively transformative despite it being such a small space. The fall from luxury is abundantly clear as Act Two opens. The costumes are also well-suited to the set. The transitions between scenes slowed down the show at times but it got smoother. 

Emma Hamilton is posed in her ‘attitude of despair' in the National Gallery. The painting by George Romney captures her beauty and allure but April De Angelis pulls her out of the painting and gives her the opportunity to tell her own story.

It runs until 7 October.

Review: Nicole Botha           Photo: Steve Gregson