The Park Theatre rarely puts a foot wrong and its latest production, ‘Madame Rubinstein’, is another example of excellent writing coupled with superlative acting.
Based around the life of the “woman who created beauty”, we first meet Helena Rubinstein during the 1950s as she reigns supreme over the cosmetics industry from her Manhattan skyscraper. Rubinstein, (or “Madame”, as her employees called her), has the world at her feet – or so it seems. Founder of a global beauty empire, married to a prince and mother of two sons, the world’s richest woman has come a long way from her humble beginnings in Krakow, where she was one of 18 children.
By any standards, and particularly those of her time, Helena’s life was not a conventional one. Born in Poland in 1872, she emigrated to Australia in 1902. Petite and beautiful, she did not go unnoticed in western Victoria; her complexion, in particular, drew many compliments. An idea was triggered, and Rubinstein began making her own face cream, using a secret ingredient – lanolin, which was easily available thanks to the proliferation of sheep in the region. It wasn’t long before Helena opened a beauty salon in Melbourne, followed by a second salon in Sydney.
Soon, the bright lights of London beckoned and Helena travelled to Europe where she married her first husband and continued to focus upon expanding her business. The couple and their sons, Roy and Horace, then lived in Paris for a time, before moving to New York at the outbreak of World War I, where they enjoyed a glamorous lifestyle.
Of course, all that glitters is not gold and, as we get to know Helena (brilliantly played by Miriam Margolyes), little by little we learn about the childhood abuse that Helena suffered at the hands of an uncle. That experience, it is clear, shaped the course of her life and, one suspects, is the main reason behind her difficulty in letting people get close to her.
The play itself is based around a number of key incidents in the latter part of Rubinstein’s life which help us understand her personality and therefore her behaviour. We see her deeply hurt by criticism of her by feminists (who were less than impressed by Rubinstein’s oft-quoted mantra “There are no ugly women, just lazy ones”), stubborn to the core in her dealings with both friends & enemies and at her most vulnerable when confronted with an intruder in her office.
Rubinstein was, undoubtedly, a chameleon. Frugal despite her massive wealth (there’s a hilarious scene in the play when we witness Rubinstein storing her lunch in the office safe, rather than the fridge: “much more economical”), she was nonetheless collected valuable art as well as being a keen philanthropist. Hard on both of her sons – we witness her playing them off against each other – she is, nevertheless devastated when Horace dies.
Margolyes depicts Rubinstein warts and all, but imbues her with a warmth and wit which cannot fail to charm. In this, she is well-matched by the only two other actors in the play: Frances Barber, as Madame’s bitter rival Elizabeth Arden, and Jonathan Forbes as “Irish”, her long-suffering assistant and confidante. Watching the three of them trade barbed comments is a joy to behold; the air positively crackles with anticipation.
I loved this play: the writing, the performances and the setting were all perfect and I didn’t want the afternoon to end. Another 10/10 for Park Theatre, which in this reviewer’s humble opinion remains one of the best and most exciting theatres in London.