Maybe it’s something in the water, but whichever side of the Atlantic you happen to be on, you can currently catch a new piece of theatre that dives behind the scenes of the legendary cosmetics rivalry between Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. On Broadway, it’s War Paint, the new musical that just snagged Tony nominations for Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole earlier this week. In London, it’s Madame Rubinstein, John Misto’s sharp-toothed comedy starring the delightfully bombastic Miriam Margolyes in the titular role.

Madame Rubinstein, playing at the Park Theatre, capers through the last decade of the entrepreneur’s life, zeroing in on her unlikely friendship with her young personal assistant Patrick O’Higgins (Helena just calls him “Irish”), who would go on to write a posthumous biography of his boss. Jonathan Forbes gives an endearing, deferential performance as Patrick, and Frances Barber lets it rip as the caustic Elizabeth, but Helena is the juiciest role and this is unequivocally Margolyes’ play. In fact, Madame Rubinstein is probably at its best during a couple of one-sided phone calls that leave Margolyes alone onstage to growl about her failed marriages, shout at her offstage secretary for taking undue bathroom breaks, or sneak over for a snack from the locked safe where she keeps her chicken wings.

Nothing about Margolyes’ larger-than-life performance, including her pronounced Polish accent, goes overboard; Madame (as she insists that Patrick calls her) is a wacky, narcissistic, and irascible woman without a filter, but she’s also wholly human. Margolyes movingly scales down the sarcasm for a tragic scene late in the second act, convincingly suggesting that Rubinstein’s abrasiveness serves as a shield from both the personal suffering she’s endured in the past and from the painful awareness that she’s failed at parenting a wayward son.

Misto’s script, as directed by Jez Bond, lands most of its acerbic punchlines, especially in the scenes when Helena and Elizabeth go at each other and plot the downfall of their shared enemy, Revlon. “Rouge is like sex,” Elizabeth tells Helena in one typical exchange. “Too little, nothing happens. Too much, people think you’re a whore.”

But when the women joke about Patrick’s hidden sexuality, the humour seems downright distasteful: “You should find a good fairy, settle down, and raise poodles,” Madame tells her assistant, and Arden later sneers, “Guess who just flitted in.” Forbes’ performance defies those easy stereotypes so it’s unclear where these lines are coming from. And, sure, Madame Rubinstein takes place in the late 1950s and early 1960s so we’re meant to recognize that these aren’t the playwright’s views and that Helena means well; still, we’re also invited to laugh at Patrick without consequence (when Helena outs Patrick to his father, the repercussions of that betrayal seem to get shoved under the rug).

Luckily, Margolyes manages to shrug off the weight of those dramaturgical missteps and navigate some of the text’s thinner scenes (some of the gentler moments turn saccharine without the salt) to safer harbour. And, for the most part, Misto proves himself to be a solid storyteller who comes up with some inventive ways to convey crucial background on these personages without awkward exposition. In real life, Arden and Rubinstein never met, and Misto makes a last-minute attempt to clean up this historical inaccuracy with an interesting twist that doesn’t quite work but helps to make the play into something more ambitious than a series of feisty zingers.

It’s unlikely the play would take flight with a lesser talent, but in Margolyes’ dexterous hands, Helena Rubinstein becomes a pioneering nasty woman, a visionary who uses her talent for enhancing beauty and her impervious sense of humour to rise to the top of a man-made pyramid: “We’re the water that runs uphill,” she tells Elizabeth. And, once she’s reached the peak, it’s delectable fun to watch Margolyes revel in the view.

Madame Rubinstein is playing at the Park Theatre until May 27.

Photo: Simon Annand