Madame Rubinstein (Park Theatre)

Posted: May 5, 2017 in Theatre


Helena Rubinstein, pioneer of the cosmetics industry in post-World War II America is a role that fits the inimitable Miriam Margolyes like a glove and, given this dream casting, there seemed every reason to hope that John Misto’s new biographical play would provide sharp insights into a fascinating woman. In the event, Misto is content to make more than half of the play a hilarious bitch-fest involving Mme R and her rival, Elizabeth Arden (Frances Barber), leaving it until very late before starting to probe deep beneath Rubinstein’s well moisturised skin.

With actors of the calibre of Margolyes and Barber spitting out the vitriol to each other, the entertainment value is high and it may seem churlish to complain. However, bitchery is not enough to sustain a play that runs for 125 Minutes (including a completely unnecessary 20 minute interval) when Margolyes does enough to whet the appetite and make us want to know a lot more.  A Jew of Polish origin (or possibly not, as she lied about almost everything in her past), Rubinstein survived Nazi persecution and bad marriages to become a miserly old lady with a rock-hard exterior. Misto structures the play around Rubinstein’s fractious relationship with her gay Irish assistant (Jonathan Forbes) and her encounters (unlikely to have really happened) with Arden; other key characters in Rubinstein’s life are mentioned repeatedly, but never seen and, accepting that the production has budget constraints, there is always a feeling that its scope needs to be expanded in order for its story to be told properly.

Alistair Turner’s set design, dominated by a projected image from a cosmetics ad, also fails to impress. Tables and chairs are hauled on and off by stage hands during overlong breaks between scenes, interrupting the flow and making Jez Bond’s unimaginative production feel stuttering. Yes, the script gives us plenty of laughs and the lines are delivered with the expected aplomb, but the play should have offered so much more.

Performance date: 4 May 2017

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