Madame Rubinstein, the mother of modern cosmetics, ‘created a world where science met beauty.’ John Misto’s play tells the story of the later years of the life of the formidable woman, letting loose her inner demons and exploring her relationship with rivals Elizabeth Arden and Revlon owner Charles Revson. We see her at her best with wonderful witty remarks – one gem being ‘my tits look so big I could hide Israel under them’ – and at her worst, when she loses the thing most important to her, though she would never admit it.
Miriam Margolyes plays the feisty, frugal matriarch with aplomb and lands every comic line with ease. It’s a role almost perfect for her sarcastic and borderline-politically-incorrect brand of humour, but hey, this is what the audience have come to see.
Whilst Frances Barber’s Arden is both classy and sardonic in equal measure, this character is sadly underwritten. The two women are shining examples of second wave feminism, both believing whole-heartedly that their make-up has liberated women and ‘brought them out of the kitchen’. This element of the piece was sadly not given enough time or exploration. “We invented feminism,” declares Madame. Despite their huge successes, both Rubinstein and Arden are presented as women who broke the glass ceiling and then pulled the ladder up behind them and this in part prevents them from forging a real friendship.
‘Irish’, a young gay man who offers himself up as Madame’s assistant, is also somewhat underdeveloped and often written very stereotypically. His story has been told a hundred times over, leaving us with little tension, even in his most dramatic moments. Much of Madame’s journey is told through her relationship with ‘Irish’, so his lack of depth often resulted in unbelievable conflict. In general, the three actors made the most of the clunky dialogue, and whilst the audience weren’t as moved in some moments as they might have been, they certainly did laugh when they ought to have done.
Part of the slightly stagnant feel of the production was down to the design, which, whilst striking, was not at all conducive to the fluidity that the conversation-heavy play relied upon. Cumbersome items of furniture were moved between every scene by two unfortunate stage managers and although the pace of these might be forgiven early in the run, it is harder to understand why the design resulted in this in the first place.
This production rests on the star casting, which to a great extent carries it through. Misto’s script could do with a refocus to draw out the really interesting insights he makes through Rubinstein’s character and story, not least her beliefs about work and success. It’s an entertaining watch and happily has sold out the rest of its run, so fingers are crossed for a bit of refining if it’s taken on elsewhere.
Madame Rubinstein has now sold out BUT you can still get excellent seats to the show on the 4th Birthday Gala Night at the Park Theatre. Click here to book. There is also a waiting list – please call the box office: 020 7870 6876.
FRANCES BARBER I ELIZABETH ARDEN
JONATHAN FORBES I PATRICK O’HIGGINS
MIRIAM MARGOLYES I HELENA RUBINSTEIN
Director I Jez Bond
Designer | Al Turner
Lighting Designer I Mark Howland
Composer | Dimitri Scarlato
Sound Designer | David Gregory
Production Manager I Simon Streeting
Company Stage Managers I John Pemberton
Photography I Mark Douet