Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors

Gillian Slovo
National Theatre at Home
National Theatre (Dorfman Theatre)

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Joe Alessi Credit: Myah Jeffers
Michael Schaeffer Credit: Myah Jeffers
Rachid Sabitri and Houda Echouafni Credit: Myah Jeffers

Much of the subject matter in Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors may seem familiar, as this work can be seen as a companion piece to Grenfell – Scenes from the Inquiry, edited by Richard Norton-Taylor and directed by Nicholas Kent on stage before broadcast by Channel 4 in 2022.

In many ways, the two complement each other, although there is inevitably a degree of overlap in the tales of a fatal fire that killed 71 residents of the North Kensington tower block and should never have happened.

This new series of testimonies includes limited extracts from the inquiry but primarily concentrates on human stories, allowing viewers to build up a graphic horror story from the thoughts and feelings of residents and those whom they lost on that fateful day in June 2017.

The strength of theatre typically lies in the ability of a playwright to use his or her imagination to shed light on the human condition. In the last few decades, practitioners have demonstrated that verbatim drama, using the words of those involved in major events or tribunals can be equally meaningful and powerful. Gillian Slovo has been in the vanguard, expertly selecting and editing information from swathes of interviews and transcripts to tell stories in fresh ways. In doing so, like many colleagues, she has been able to make those in power consider and even change public policy.

The power of the creative media has recently been made painfully apparent once again as, after years of neglect, the plight of postmasters and mistresses has been addressed almost overnight as the result of a TV mini-series. Anyone seeing this shocking work will wonder why, in the aftermath of an even greater tragedy, the difficulties of victims and their families have not received similar precipitate treatment.

Filmed in front of a live audience in July 2023, the piece is played out in-the-round by an ensemble cast under the co-direction of Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike. Each actor takes multiple roles and uses props that are limited to a handful of symbolic boxes and their contents.

The main participants, speaking their own words, may be an assorted group of asylum seekers, immigrants and those with local routes but represent community who form “one big family”. For the most part, they loved living in Grenfell Tower, a building just around the corner from the homes of Davids Cameron and Beckham, which belied the usual reputation of inner London council estates.

Cameron, exposed in a news clip, is one of the villains of this piece, as his penny-pinching scrapping of regulations compounded those of the late Lady Thatcher’s administration, allowed an inept management company and Conservative Council to conspire in a long-running cycle where maintenance was neglected to cut costs with an underlying desire to run down social housing and cash in by “sweating assets”.

Warning signs proliferated, including a 2009 fire in Camberwell in a building featuring the same type of combustible façade. Following that tragedy, the coroner sent a letter to the housing minister, Eric Pickles, challenging the policy whereby residents of high-rise buildings were recommended to stay put when there was a fire. Regrettably, this was ignored by ministers and civil servants.

So bad were the maintenance issues with 3,500 repairs outstanding and 64% of doors in the building not compliant with fire regulations that a 120-strong Grenfell Action Group had been established in 2012 as the building descended into a near slum. The problems were compounded when a major refurbishment was carried out by what appears to have been a cowboy contractor using unsafe materials, unchallenged by the Tenant Management Organisation, which was seemingly hopeless and committed to nothing but cutting costs.

By the end of what is effectively an hour-long introduction to the history of Grenfell Tower, one tenant’s words, “they didn’t care about us,” seem impossible to challenge.

The play moves into top gear as the timeline reaches the fire itself, which occurred at 1AM on a summer night. Despite their best efforts, there was inadequate firefighting support and management, as well as hints of racism. The testimonies of those who escaped will bring tears to the eyes of all but the hardest-hearted.

It can be quite hard to point the finger of blame, since so many organisations were culpable in numerous ways including the council, the Fire Brigade (although many individual firefighters were truly heroic), the Tenant Management Organisation and various manufacturers, especially the callous management of the cladding company, which instituted a cover-up of inadequacies, facilitated by lax legislation, while other companies ignored safety tests that failed.

The 2½-hour-long evening ends with some brief appearances on screen from actual victims and relatives still angry today at the absence of justice and fearful that a repeat could be just around the corner as the authorities dither instead of replacing dangerous materials in buildings up and down the country.

National Theatre at Home is available on subscription, broadcasts in HD, costs only £9.99 for a month or £99.99 for a year.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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