It's a remarkable coincidence that the intense rivalry between 20th century cosmetic giants Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden is currently being brought to theatrical life simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic in completely different shows. In New York the team behind Grey Gardens recently opened the new musical War Paint featuring Broadway divas Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole battling it out, while over here Miriam Margolyes and Frances Barber are chewing the scenery to fabulous effect in John Misto's episodic, bitchy but gloriously entertaining play.
Margolyes plays Rubinstein - so imperious that even her own children call her "Madame" - to the absolute hilt: she's brash, amoral, manipulative, paranoid, rude, crazy: a bejewelled gorgon in a pillar box red dress. She is also, in Margolyes' endlessly skilled hands, utterly irresistible, whether screaming abuse through the window at the founder of a rival company in the skyscraper opposite, delivering a hilariously vicious make-up demonstration on an unwilling (male) assistant or comparing the use of cosmetics to sex: "too little and not much happens, too much and people think you're a whore." Or better still, describing her disappointment upon meeting a bare-faced Golda Meir: "I said to her: bubula, you can't meet Arafat looking like that."
It's a comic tour de force and it is hard to imagine any other actress pulling it off with so much aplomb. Margolyes also touchingly conveys the loneliness of a woman isolated partly by her Polish-Jewish origins but also by her success as a businesswoman at a time when a woman's place was still perceived to be in the home - the play's time frame runs from the early 1950s up until Rubinstein's death in 1965.
The more patrician Arden is perhaps less well fleshed out as a character but Barber is magnificent, finding an unexpected warmth and humanity underneath the bitching and posing. For all the camp comedy - of which there is plenty - the final scene between the two women carries a considerable emotional wallop, not least because one learns something about their frenemy status that unexpectedly throws into relief everything you have been watching over the preceding two hours.
Jonathan Forbes is also hugely impressive as the gay Irish former soldier who comes into the women's orbit as whipping boy, voice of reason, pawn and surrogate son all rolled into one.
Misto's incisive, frequently witty script sometimes seems uncertain how much tongue should be left in powdered cheek, and suffers from the curse of the bio-play, whereby characters occasionally hurl facts at each other in order to bring the audience up to speed. Also, the allusions to incestuous abuse in Rubinstein's past and Arden's questionable political sympathies are glossed over rather too quickly. That said, the quick-fire brilliance of the acting goes quite some way to deflecting attention from any flaws, although the too-frequent scene changes can feel clumsy in Jez Bond's otherwise elegant staging.
Margolyes and Barber are a terrific double act however, and the whole, wonderfully enjoyable show screams West End transfer.