Sunday, 14 May 2017

The 'Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?' of the cosmetics world

We went to see a camp extravaganza on Thursday night - Madame Rubinstein, John Misto's brand new play about the true-life rivalry between cosmetics moguls Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, their entirely fictional face-to-face encounters as they compete with each other to create the first waterproof mascara, and their reluctant alliance as they attempt to thwart the underhand tactics of Charles Revson, founder of Revlon.

As if the premise itself weren't appealing enough, when we discovered that not one, but two of our favourite gay icons Miriam Margoyles (as Madame) and Frances Barber (as Miss Arden) were in it - it was essential that we got a ticket!

As the always amusing review site West End Whingers elucidates:
Rubinstein is portrayed as an irascible, cheapskate manipulator who waddles around weighed down by envy and bling and keeps a leg of chicken in her office safe as it saves buying a fridge. Somehow Margolyes makes her endearing. Almost.

Arden drifts in and out plotting and competing with her to find a waterproof mascara. That’s when the two aren’t volleying barbs at each other. It’s the Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? of the cosmetics world. If Barber doesn’t get to play Bette Davis one day then it’s an affront to the gay community...

...Some of the jokes are as clumsy as the between-scenes furniture-shifting but if you’re a connoisseur of high camp you’ll find enough to make you chortle.

And chortle we did, as these two mistresses of OTT acting brought the "Great Ladies of Slap" to life in all their bitchy and manipulative glory - for despite the irritatingly disjointed scene changes (far too many gaps in the "action" for my liking), they have many great waspish lines to relish.

The foil for this (almost) two-hander is Madame Rubinstein's trusted aide, originally hired to help prevent industrial espionage, the gay Irishman "Patrick" (played by Jonathan Forbes). His loyalty to the end, despite all the cruel jokes and tricks played upon him by his ogrish-yet-vulnerable patron, gave a humanity to the story that otherwise could have veered a little too close to caricature.

Despite its limitations, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves! However, unless the production is tightened-up a bit so that the storyline flows rather than appear as a collection of vignettes, I really cannot see this production making a transfer to the West End.

But I certainly shan't be buying Revlon again...

Madame Rubinstein at The Park Theatre [currently sold out]


  1. Miriam Margoyles and Frances Barber!!!! Hell they could just stand there. What a great idea for a play. Maybe a good idea for Ryan Murphy's new show Feud here.

    1. The two ladies are utterly, utterly fabulous - the last of a dying breed of larger-than-life, "don't give a shit about what anybody thinks, I'm just going to say it" actresses; in the presence of which we have nothing but awe and respect... Jx

  2. Isn't there an identical concept musical with Patti Lupone named for the biography 'War Paint' about Rubinstein & Arden running as well...? Fascinating...đŸ˜¶

    1. As the aforementioned "West End Whingers" wittily said:

      "You wait a lifetime to see Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden portrayed on stage and then you get two in a row."


  3. It was indeed, utterly fabulous !

  4. Would love to see this. Sounds like a lot more fun than the Broadway version.

    1. It's the eternal balance between "acting" and "musical" talents - for me, Miss Margolyes and Miss Barber trump Miss LuPone and Miss Ebersole any day... Jx


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