Frances Barber and Miriam Margolyes star in Madam Rubinstein

Miriam Margolyes and Frances Barber in Madame Rubinstein. Picture: Mark Douet

Miriam Margolyes and Frances Barber in Madame Rubinstein. Picture: Mark Douet - Credit: Archant

Frances Barber talks about the bitter rivalry between Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, on show at The Park Theatre

The bitter rivalry between make-up moguls Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden is the subject of big budget Broadway musical War Paint.

But two of Britain’s top actresses are slugging it out as the famous pair on the smaller stage of The Park Theatre.

Miriam Margolyes plays Rubinstein to Frances Barber’s Arden in John Misto’s comedy Madame Rubinstein.

They are joined by Jonathan Forbes (Sharon’s annoying brother Feargal in Catastrophe) in a play charting their final decade in 50s and 60s New York.

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Barber, whose long-as-your-arm credits range from Dr Who and Silk to RSC roles, says: “Historically the two women never met but in a kind of fantasy land we pretend they did.

“They were such pioneers in a very male world. They were the biggest rivals, they disliked each other and were in furious competition but the play suggests they have more in common that not.”

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Both women were self-made millionaires who built a salon and cosmetics business aided by clever marketing that blended pseudo-science with scaremongering, and hiking up prices to increase the perceived value of their products.

Both married aristocratic chancers and died in Manhattan within 18 months of each other, among the richest women in the world.

But while Arden hailed from British-Canadian stock, Rubinstein, who insisted her staff called her Madame, was born a Polish Jew in Krakow.

“It’s the era of McCarthy, Hoover and the Ku Klux Klan. It reminds you how frightening it all was,” says Barber.

“Rubinstein fought her way up and forged a new life for herself but was very dark haired and Jewish looking, there was huge prejudice and she was ostracised, while Arden was blonde haired and blue eyed and became an East Coast snob.”

Both women succeeded despite a business world that refused women bank loans – Rubinstein had to start her firm with her own money.

“There’s a line where I go to the bank to ask for a loan and they say ‘we don’t lend to spinsters come back with a husband’,” says Barber.

“Their names are still two of the biggest in cosmetics but we forget they had to fight tooth and nail in a really cutthroat male business world. What’s more interesting than the rivalry is to see how these two women survived in this horrible world.”

That said there is still sparring between the pair.

“Arden’s a refined business woman but now and again her hackles rise and she’s really quite evil. There’s such a nasty side to her. Cosmetics are a trivial subject and it’s funny that they fight about perfume, but what sold me to want to do it was a serious side. We see Rubenstein disintegrate when a series of tragedies happen to her.”

The other thing that drew Barber was the chance to work with her old friend Margolyes.

“I couldn’t pass up the chance to work with her again. She’s such an extraordinary character in real life. A national treasure it’s fantastic to know her as a friend.”

Barber’s recent work has ranged from playing crazy historic women in TV comedy Psychobitches to the title role in an all female production of Julius Caesar. But at 59 she admits “I’d be lying to say the parts are just as rich as before”.

“I was never the ingénue, never the Juliet, more the Lady Macbeth. I probably lamented that at the time but it’s meant I have never been pigeonholed and could branch out in different roles; Chekhov, modern plays.”

Fellow actresses had warned her of “a fallow time between 50 and 70 when they don’t know where to plant you”.

“I’ve been lucky enough to continue to work but it wouldn’t be true to say it’s easy. A play like this is a gift, they don’t come every day.”

Julius Caesar which transferred to New York was also a gift that she thoroughly enjoyed unwrapping.

“It’s such a male play about war and intrigue with fabulous roles and great speeches. I think women can bring an added dimension to a familiar masculine role. It was thrilling and challenging to play a big macho role, to play someone bold and deliberate rather than a careful female part. I thought ‘I am going to go for this’.”

Having played Lady Macbeth she would now “love to have a go with the title role in the Scottish play”.

“Each time I’ve played her I have always wanted his words, which run the gamut of passion, truth despair and fear. He has some of the most beautiful speeches in the whole of the canon. I think we’ve only just scratched the surface.”

Madame Rubinstein runs at The Park Theatre until May 27.

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