What a brilliant idea to write a play about ruthless and feiste Helena Rubinstein, the self made millionaire behind the face cream empire. Even better to explore an imagined relationship with her arch-rival Elizabeth Arden. With lashings of lipstick and acerbic wit, it’s a rare opportunity to see Miriam Margolyes and Frances Barber, two of our greatest female stars of the stage sparring together in such an intimate space.

‘We are the water that runs up hill’ says Rubinstein because of course this is not just the story of the birth of make-up but two rich and powerful businesswomen at a point in history when that just didn’t happen. Rubinstein, a Polish Jewish Immigrant was rejected by her parents and abused by her uncles and both have had a string of disastrous marriages. Only Rubinstein’s (gay) assistant Patrick played by Jonathan Forbes offers a glimpse of affection in their brittle world. But they are fighters and innovators and refusing to be beaten, lead the way in product marketing of the 50’s and 60’s. ‘I was into psychology before Freud invented it’ quips Rubinstein who raised her face-cream to 8 shillings to make it stand out from the market rate of 2 shillings.

It could be, should be a film. Rubinstein is a huge role played with irresistible warmth by Margolyes and Barber’s Arden, though a supporting character in the play is equally fascinating, making her way from a Canadian farm to the heights of glamour. But the downside of it’s scope is the sheer number of short scenes required to span the years which interrupted the action and me had the stage hands lugging heavy desks around the set every few minutes.

The imagined relationship between Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden is hilariously acidic and on the desperate search for the holy grail of waterproof mascara (you are allowed to laugh) they enlist private detectives and bug each others offices. It’s only when facing death that they nearly show their affection to each other, though it remains fighting talk,
‘With my products and your packaging we could have ruled the world!’
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