Based on the life and career of cosmetics magnate Helena Rubinstein, John Misto's new play stars Miriam Margolyes and continues a varied season at the Park Theatre. It's a successor of sorts of Ryan Craig's Filthy Business that recently ended its run at Hampstead Theatre, telling the story of a female Jewish immigrant who went on to great success in the business world - though it's more of a comedic biography than a play out to make a social or political point. Coincidentally, a musical depiction of Rubinstein's rivalry with Elizabeth Arden (War Paint) recently opened on Broadway starring Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, receiving four Tony nominations this week.
Beginning in 1950s New York, the play tracks the latter years of Helena Rubinstein's life. Early on we meet Patrick, who immediately proves to be useful and ends up being employed as her security on and off for the duration of her career. There are also a series of battles and accords between her and Arden, alternately joining forces against Revlon and competing to develop new products (such as waterproof mascara). However, rather than really focus in on one episode or aspect of her life, it's more of an overview and consequently lacks any real drive. Some of the jokes also get a bit repetitive, overdoing the remarks on Patrick's sexuality and Madame Rubinstein's figure.
The set is simply designed, retaining the same backdrop for the entirety of the show and only using furniture to differentiate between scenes and locations. This is where it falls down slightly, as the scene transitions take far too long; at the very least a desk with coasters would help speed things along, or simply use a bit less furniture. As it is the transition times only accentuate the lack of flow in the piece. Jonathan Forbes plays Patrick with a large dose of humanity, easily the most relatable character on show, who's quickly swept up into the world of cosmetics but remains loyal to his changeable boss. Frances Barber ensures that Elizabeth Arden is a match for Helena Rubinstein, an acid tongue throwing back sharp but witty insults as the women trade verbal blows.
Miriam Margolyes is a force of nature, showing off every inch of her comic prowess as the ageing businesswoman. She has comedic timing by the bucket-load, really playing up to the audience; some of the things Rubinstein says are horrible, but you can't help but laugh out loud. As entertaining as it is to watch Margolyes' Rubinstein effortlessly spit out barbs at her archrival, the play is definitely found wanting in terms of story. There is no driving plotline to give it cohesion, rather it's more like a series of sketches strung together that lack focus. However, it's undeniably funny and makes for an enjoyable evening watching two of our finest actresses share the limelight.
Madame Rubinstein is at the Park Theatre until 27 May
Posted : 4th May 2017