A strange thing happened on the evening I went to the Playground Theatre in Notting Hill and, come the interval, the audience, though full and plainly rapt, remained quite silent. Not a single clap, let alone a cheer.
The reason, surely, was that this extraordinary piece of verbatim theatre didn’t seem like your usual sort of stage entertainment. Which of course it’s not, but rather an edited selection of exchanges from the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster of nearly six years ago.
Clearly, applause didn’t seem quite the right response. Silence was more respectful, not just to the seventy-two residents who died in that unthinkable inferno, but also to their friends and relatives who live in an ongoing state of loss and anger. If you approach the Playground Theatre from Latimer Road tube station, you can plainly see the standing corpse of Grenfell. With its ghostly pale girding and tragic past, it can take on the aspect of a cautionary spectre.
What director Nick Kent and Richard Norton-Taylor have done is to edit the massive quantity of report pages that was produced in the wake of the inquiry, and turn certain of the salient testimonies into dialogue. Because of the Q and A nature of the exchanges, the encounters between Richard Millett QC and the succession of witnesses verge from the bland and patient to the sceptical and confrontational; never more so than when Lord Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, presented here as a rather risible huffer-and-puffer, comes under scrutiny. Howard Crossley is an almost farcical Pickles, with Ron Cook’s Millett dealing with him rather as you would lance a bubble.
If you saw the televised scenes from the inquiry, you would surely approve the casting of Thomas Wheatley as Sir Martin Moore-Bick, with one of those impeccable, rather wartime-English manners that find room for human compassion as well as sceptical probing. You want him on your side, even though you know him to be a beacon of neutrality.
Largely because of its fidelity to the principles of verbatim theatre, this is an appallingly compelling evening as it invites you to revisit the events of that dreadful night. It turns transcripts of the inquiry’s work into vivid and revitalised exchanges, with witness and lawyer alike being pushed to the edge of their patience.
The tension between professional restraint and courtesy on the one hand, and the utter nightmare of the fire on the other, can at times take the evening into the domain of more conventional drama. But not for long.
The core of the story remains almost unbearable, these years on. Not just for the loss of lives, the Towering Inferno ordeal of being trapped at the top of a blazing building and weighing up the grim rival claims of dying by fire or fall.
The disaster kicks off in the very early hours of the morning of June 14th 2017 when a small fire breaks out in a fridge on the fourth floor. Within an hour it has become the worst post-war fire in Britain, with the flames leaping up to the very top of the building.
We now know that among the villains of the piece were the interiors of the aluminium-cased blocks of cladding. It seems barely credible, but these units, far from resisting or retarding the blaze were fuelling it with the presence of polyethylene.
The inquiry, and System Failure with it, do try to run to ground the reasons for the presence of this plastic, but run hit a wall, or rather a mirror-maze of buck-passing and professed ignorance.
One of the most enduring images of System Failure is that of Grenfell resident Hisam Choucair, played with quiet dignity by Shahzad Ali, telling of his loss of six family members at Grenfell: his mother, sister, brother-in-law and three nieces. That and the lethal chaos caused by the abandonment of instructions to residents “stay put” in their flats, and its replacement by the order to make their way down the stairs.
There was no way Grenfell and its unanswered questions were going to vanish from the public gaze, but System Failure makes such a thing even more improbable.
Review by Alan Franks
Based entirely on the words of those involved in the final phase of the Inquiry (which ended in November 2022), this new play interrogates why the testing regime failed to warn of the danger of installing inflammable materials, why manufacturers promoted such products with no regard to safety, why government regulations ignored the dangers and were not updated, and why politicians failed to ensure proper oversight. Through the testimonies of bereaved residents, it explores how they were failed by the London Fire Brigade on the night and abandoned by the Local Authority in the chaos of the fire’s aftermath.
Grenfell: System Failure tours to three West London venues: The Playground Theatre, The Tabernacle and The Marylebone Theatre, from 18 February – 26 March 2023.