Always among the most accessible and least pretentious of contemporary British playwrights, April De Angelis has also demonstrated a stealth subversiveness and wide range in her work. As Dominic Dromgoole writes in The Full Room: "Her imagination can encompass and reproduce worlds very distant from her own, and she has an ease with non-naturalistic dialogue that carries the audience with her... There is a central coarseness, a vitality, a rudeness that keeps it fresh and alive."
De Angelis brings those qualities to her latest historical play, Infamous, which focuses on Emma Hamilton. The scandalous life story of "that Hamilton woman," wife of Sir William and lover of Lord Nelson, has, of course, often been dramatised - including in Susan Sontag's great The Volcano Lover (1992) which filtered the events mostly through Sir William's perspective.
But where Sontag's novel constantly expanded outwards through rich allusions and digressions, De Angelis play is distilled, intimate and interior - particularly so in Michael Oakley's production on the tiny Jermyn Street stage. Pointedly, William and Nelson are nowhere to be seen here: the only male characters are an Italian servant and a French Mayor's son, both played with gusto by Riad Richie.
Instead, De Angelis makes Infamous a mother/daughter story, and one that's much enhanced in Oakley's production by the casting of real-life mother and daughter Caroline and Rose Quentin.
The play opens in 1798 in Naples, with Rose as the young Emma, married to William, the English Ambassador, but already plotting the seduction of Nelson fresh off the boat. She receives her mother, who's been visiting the daughter that Emma's abandoned in England, and who has a secret of her own to share.
In the second half, the scene shifts to Calais in 1815. Nelson is dead and the ageing, drink-dependant Emma (now played by Caroline) is living in decidedly straitened circumstances with Nelson's daughter Horatia, dwelling on memories of her illustrious past.
As in her last play - last year's unfairly critically-mauled (but audience-pleasing) Kerry Jackson - De Angelis deceptively packs quite a lot into a small, unassuming space in Infamous. Exceptionally clear, the historical context is lightly sketched but felt - weaving a sense of Emma's history into the sometimes sparky, sometimes painful exchanges between her and her mother, and then between her and Horatia.
Oakley's no-frills production places the emphasis firmly on the dialogue and the actors, who capture all the contours of the characters' dynamics in both time periods.
From Jumpy to the hilariously excruciating memorial service mashup in Kerry, De Angelis loves to integrate a moment of full-on female performance into her plays, and here Caroline Quentin gets to deliver Emma's "Attitudes", the set of historical and mythological poses she persists in viewing as an artistic triumph.
Equally good in their other role, the Quentins give marvellously complementary performances as Emma, the pertness, casual cruelty and self-regard of Rose's turn in the first half given its distorted mirror image in Caroline's very physical portrayal of the character's decline in the second. Neither demonising nor romanticising its heroine, yet subtly casting her in a fresh light, De Angelis' funny, touching play finally places the emphasis on female fortitude.
Infamous is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 7 October.
Production photos by Steve Gregson.