Tony Harrison’s anti-war verse drama Square Rounds is an interesting curiosity. Premiered as a technical extravaganza on the National Theatre’s huge Olivier stage in 1992, it now receives its first revival in the tiny Finborough Theatre, with a mainly female cast of 23 cut down to an all-female six.
Proud Haddock does extraordinarily well to pull off such an entertaining show, without being able to convince us that it is more than a didactic sequence of sketches rather than a fully fledged drama.
The set-up involves a group of women who have replaced drafted men in a First World War munitions factory – ‘munitionettes’ – taking on the guise of historical scientists to explain the origins of weapons of mass destruction.
They include the Nobel Prize-winning German-Jewish chemist Fritz Haber, who pioneered nitrogen fertiliser to feed the masses but also explosives and poisonous gases, and Sir Hiram Maxim, the American-born British inventor of the first portable fully automatic machine gun.
Of course, a hundred years on from the end of the Great War, the subject of WMD is all too pertinent today, but despite its witty rhyming couplets Square Rounds is essentially an illustrated history lecture delivered to the audience without much interaction between characters.
Director Jimmy Walters (who also helmed Harrison’s more coherent play The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus at the Finborough two years ago) makes sure the action is kept lively, while Daisy Blower’s adaptable set includes a magical toilet closet from which new characters emerge.
The excellent cast includes Philippa Quinn playing Haber as an over-confident top-hatted magician and Letty Thomas as the bronchitis-suffering Maxim spluttering like his gun – both blindly adamant that they are benefactors to mankind despite the horrendous destruction their inventions were used for.