Park Theatre, London – until 27 May 2017
By all accounts Helena Rubinstein was not a ‘nice woman’, but cresting her recent Bucket and Real Marigold Hotel TV successes, Miriam Margolyes bears all before her impersonating the outrageous potty-mouthed tyrant of the cosmetics industry.
Madam Rubinstein focuses on her career-long rivalries with Revlon and particularly Elizabeth Arden played with venomous camp by Frances Barber dripping fox furs and acid putdowns. It’s staged like a bitch fight between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford: the performances are splendidly vigorous, but the beauty only runs skin-deep as the script is slight and the play underpopulated, with just Rubinstein’s tearoom-trade male assistant for company.
Concurrently on Broadway, a musical War Paint pits Patti LuPone as Rubinstein opposite Christine Ebersole as Arden, and from the same source material seems also not to move its audience other than by providing a vehicle of high camp.
These were self-invented magnates in a completely new industry which pioneered women’s roles in American business. In the twenties they were hailed as champions who empowered women to look and feel more beautiful with make-up – Rubinstein famously said there were no ugly women, only lazy ones – yet before their deaths in the 1960’s had begun to be criticised for the glossed female image their products supported. But you get virtually none of this in Madam Rubinstein, merely a series of snapshots of her selfishness, paranoid fear of competitors, and personal manipulativeness. An actress as intelligent and resourceful as Margolyes could have handled much more complex material.
Talking of glossed, Margolyes’ famously springy and untamed curls have been coloured and straightened and she looks suave and soigné, laden with jewels and girdled in a boxy red silk shift which suits her new colouring. For some reason, Barber sports a series of New Look outfits and changes frequently during the evening, whereas Margolyes gets only the one frock.
I’m not sure whether Rubinstein’s security man/assistant was a flamer who spent a lot of time in gents’ toilets, but daubing his character with this stereotype does Jonathan Forbes no favours in trying to make something actual and emotional from the role. Otherwise he’s just swapping cheap jibes with the two leads. It’s amusing to know something of these women, but a couple of years down the road John Misto’s script will definitely be exhibiting the Seven Signs of Ageing.