The life of Helena Rubinstein, one of the make-up industry’s first giants and a Jewish immigrant from Poland, and the story of her rivalry with Elizabeth Arden, seemed like a fascinating and unusual subject for a play. Thus, I was looking forward to Madame Rubinstein at the Park Theatre. My only experience of Miriam Margoyles so far was watching her play firm but kindly herbology teacher Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films – and if I hadn’t known the formidable presence with slicked-back black hair and bright red dress was that person, I would not have recognised her.
And indeed, Margoyles is this play’s strongest asset. Her performance in the title role is acerbic, funny and very watchable. Equally, the teasing, friendly but nasty back-and-forth between her and Arden has great chemistry. The production as a whole however, is not carried by this. It’s a slow play, narratively but not thematically bulky, with over-long scene changes. It was the middle of the afternoon (I saw a matinee), and I hadn’t had a huge amount of sleep the night before, but I found myself nodding off during the first half. The second half is definitely better – the jokes, while not clever enough for my Stoppard-loving tastes, come thick and fast, and it feels like the action has speeded up a bit. Overall though, the play loses much by skating over many interesting themes – anti-Semitism, homophobia and the rise of the feminist movement are all there and could have made for a much meatier production if they had been explored in depth.
Sitting up on the balcony all the way to the right in the Park Theatre’s 2000 space, I unfortunately couldn’t see the actors’ faces a lot of the time. As the play has such contrived-feeling staging, one might have hoped that all the possible sight-lines would have been thought of. Though I enjoyed myself more than I did at the last Park Theatre production I attended – the cringe-inducing Chinglish – I again felt that the women onstage delivered much better performances than the men and that the play chosen did not really merit the production.
Madame Rubinstein is playing at the Park Theatre until 27 May 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.