Grenfell: in the words of survivors

Gillian Slovo
National Theatre
National Theatre Dorfman

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Grenfell: in the words of survivors Credit: Sophie Wedgwood
The actor Gaz Choudhry in Grenfell: in the words of survivors Credit: Myah Jeffers
Cast in Grenfell: in the words of survivors Credit: Myah Jeffers
Grenfell: in the words of survivors Credit: Myah Jeffers

Gillian Slovo’s powerful verbatim drama, derived mostly from interviews with survivors of the Grenfell fire, begins gently enough. Performers introduce themselves to the audience who sit on four sides of a performance space that is lit by the house lights for the early part of the show.

We are told we can at any point in the show take a break from what we see and are given a few minutes to introduce ourselves to someone we don't know.

In character, the actors then warmly recall good things about the place they called home in Grenfell Tower. They speak of the sense of community, the feeling of space in their flats, the amazing views they could see of London, and the quietness away from city noise.

Their voices open and close the performance. In between, we hear them tell their story which is interspersed with moments from the inquiry. There are no images of the fire, but in the second half, we hear about the night of the fire.

The first half includes omens of an approaching danger. Screened video on each side of the stage show UK prime minister David Cameron promising to get rid of regulations that hamper industry. A regeneration plan refers to the estate as spoiling the look of this borough and proposes demolishing the tower. This is the wealthiest local authority in the UK. A resident of the tower mentions that nearby residents include Elton John, David Cameron and the Beckhams.

But instead of knocking down Grenfell, they decide to give it a cheap cosmetic smartening up which soon causes residents problems of malfunctioning windows that wouldn't close and 64% of fire doors that were not fire compliant (some doors fell off their hinges). Boilers are installed like monstrous obstructions in hallways. To make matters worse for anyone trying to reach a particular floor, they changed the floor numbers without putting any clear sign on the stairs to indicate which floor was which. That was later to be a problem for firefighters trying to reach people they had been told needed rescuing.

There are snatches from the inquiry of the corporate-suited executives who decided to wrap the residents in the cheap and shiny highly flammable coffin. We hear how such a coffin coat killed six at Lakanel House in 2009. That ought to have been a deadly warning, but it didn’t stop the suits of 2015 from wrapping Grenfell in the same coffin.

When the coroner for the Lakanal dead continuously pressed government to change the rules on coffin cladding, Brian Martin the head of technical policy for building regulation, wrote to other civil servants that, “we only have a duty to respond to the coroner, not kiss her backside.”

The second half of the play takes us to the night of the fire and the lethal “stay put policy” that meant many residents who could have escaped the building were told to stay in their homes waiting for help that never came. The overwhelmed call centre didn't even use one of their televisions to monitor the spread of the fire at Grenfell.

A firefighter who did not help one family said the woman in the flat did not have English as her first language. It turns out she was born in England, had lived there all her life and her first language is English. But she did wear a hijab. There were also suggestions a call handler responded differently to people “with accents”.

As those who escaped the raging fire waited outside the block for news of relatives and friends still inside, they were shouted at by police and were shocked when riot police were sent to the gathering. That night, the authorities offered no support.

A very fine cast of twelve actors play numerous parts from survivors to corporate suits in an extraordinary performance directed by Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike.

In a closing, moving sequence, the audience in the section that is often the stage at the Dorfman leave their seats to sit in the central performance space. Seventy-two of the vacated seats are then lit. A huge screen is lowered and upon it is projected video of the survivors whose words the actors had been speaking.

One of them tells us, “it's all about money and greed.” Another insists that what happened “should be in the National Curriculum”. A third points out, “the system isn’t broken. It was made to help keep us where we are and them where they are.”

The final film footage is of a march by survivors and bereaved families as part of Grenfell United. This is continued in the theatre with the actors leading us in silence out of the Dorfman to a temporary memorial to Grenfell.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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