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Review: Madame Rubinstein, at Park Theatre

Engaging production focuses on the final years in the life of woman who revolutionised the cosmetics industry

12 May, 2017 — By Lucy Popescu

Miriam Margolyes in Madame Rubinstein. Photo: Sikmon Annand

THE dazzling ascent of a Polish-Jewish immigrant who revolutionised the cosmetics industry and achieved immeasurable wealth is a fertile subject for theatre.

Helena Rubinstein (Miriam Margolyes) lived to the grand old age of 94 but, rather than chart her rise in fortunes, John Misto’s bio-play focuses on the final decade of her life, opening in New York in 1954 and ending with her death in 1965.

This engaging, but decidedly slight, homage follows the rivalry of Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden (Frances Barber), who moved in the same circles but never met, and their race to invent waterproof mascara.

There’s also a subplot that involves Rubinstein’s gay Irish assistant and companion Patrick O’Higgins (Jonathan Forbes), perhaps intended to illustrate the businesswoman’s softer side.

Misto plays for laughs, but some of his jokes about Jewish stinginess (Rubinstein stores chicken legs in her safe to save on electricity) and Patrick’s sexuality are unnecessarily crass.

Jez Bond’s fast-paced production is let down by too many scene changes. Barber’s bitchy insouciance hits the mark the moment she arrives on stage, whereas Margolyes takes a while to warm into her role.

The second half is stronger, with Misto revealing some of the tragedies in Rubinstein’s life which evidently helped to shape her steely resolve.

The feminist backlash against the cosmetics industry and Arden’s Nazi affiliations are touched upon. Further exploration of these might have added some spice to this rather bland fare.

Margolyes and Barber’s reputations precede them and the run is already sold out. Fans will have to hope for a West End transfer.

Until May 27
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