Square Rounds ★★★★

Playwright Tony Harrison is well-versed in the Theatre of War

In 1992, poet and playwright Tony Harrison – celebrated for the excitement and energy of his verse dramas – came up with this novel way of sharing the stories of scientists behind inventions that changed the face of warfare. Exercised by events during the Gulf War, he places centre stage Fritz Haber, the Nobel Prize-winning Jewish chemist, whose twin inventions were ironically chlorine gas and synthesised fertiliser. In this anniversary year of the Great War, the resonance and implications of the birth of chemical warfare, still in use on battlefield and streets alike, are as timely now as then; and the tragic irony of a Jewish chemist inventing the precursor of Zyklon B is not lost.

Harrison’s genius is to find ways of lighting theatrical fireworks beneath this earnest material. In some ways reminiscent of Oh What a Lovely War! he uses music hall, and the conjuror’s sleight-of-hand becomes a metaphor for the mysteries of scientific genius.

In the National Theatre premiere, the large cast was mainly female, so that key roles like Haber and other male scientists were played by women. Jimmy Walters’ inventive production for Proud Haddock TC, has an all-female cast of just six. They amply fill the Finborough’s intimate space on Daisy Blower’s artfully compact set.

Square Rounds © S R Taylor Photography (6).jpg

Starting as a chorus of World War I ‘munitionettes’ making shells makes this work; as the women don male attire, there is a pleasing ironic ambiguity to women playing these boffins in the style of male impersonators on the halls.

In a fascinating coup de theatre, Blower places an early water closet centre stage, which doubles as a sort of magic box, through which key figures make their entrances and exits. This works especially well as an apparently magical invention, which topically, both then and now, is claimed to have the added bonus of enabling the use of human waste as much-needed fertiliser.

Philippa Quinn’s charismatic Haber, tall and as impeccably turned out as Vesta Tilley, most famous of male impersonators, is the first to make a dramatic entrance via the closet, amazing the munitionettes with her ‘magic’. Harrison also gives Haber the accolade of being the first to employ the magic of rhyme, taken up with relish by the rest of the cast.

Eva Feller is equally stylish as Justus von Liebig, the scientist with the passion, and the means, for making sure that human waste is not actually wasted, all proved with an apt touch of earthy toilet humour.

Walters effectively uses song and choreography (composer Jeremy Warmsley, MD/arranger Adam Gerber, movement director Depi Gorgianni).

However, although we learn how American brothers Hiram and Hudson Maxim (Letty Thomas and Amy Marchant) keep it in the family, inventing respectively the machine gun and smokeless gunpowder, there is little relationship drama here.

In just one gripping scene, it’s left to Dr Clara Immerwahr (powerfully intense Gracy Goldman), Haber’s wife, an equally brilliant chemist, to confront her husband on the horrific implications of the gas he hopes will shorten the war, before she shoots herself in her despair.

And that title? Apparently an earlier inventor, James Puckle, came up with square bullets to shoot Muslims. The evil that men do does not always live after them. Tony Harrison provides a telling learning curve.

By Judi Herman

Photos by S R Taylor Photography

Square Rounds runs until Saturday 29 September. 7.30pm (Tue-Sat), 3pm (Sun; and Sat from 15 Sep). £18-£20, £16-£18 concs. Finborough Theatre, SW10 9ED. 084 4847 1652. www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk