Grenfell: System Failure – Playground Theatre, London

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Editors: Richard Norton-Taylor and Nicolas Kent

Director Nicolas Kent

“I passed that email on to the department to pick up.”

“I wouldn’t come here to try to remove responsibility.”

Combing through the transcriptions and evidential files that make up The Grenfell Tower Inquiry, Richard Norton-Taylor and Nicolas Kent have constructed an engrossing, upsetting text that showcases the massive (and so far, unresolved) general failure of multiple systems that led to the deaths of 72 people (and two more in hospital) in June 2017.

The polite but coldly formal inquiry room (recreated by Miki Jablkowska and Matt Eagland), which allows the focus to rest on the people giving evidence, makes for a static, unadorned production. The only movement is in the small gestures of the witnesses – a gulp of water, a hand flailing in agitation. A list of 10 speakers come through, each interviewed by Richard Millett QC (Ron Cook) or his assistant Kate Grange QC (Sally Giles), their words the exact ones used by their real-life counterparts at the inquiry over the last few years.

We hear both from families of those who were hurt, as well as those involved in construction, regulation, and emergency response. What we hear from this latter group of individuals is dominated by two things: attempts to absolve themselves of responsibility, and hindsight that shows clearly where they could have done better.

Hisam Choucair’s testimony (told by Shahzad Ali) as someone who lost family in the fire tells us of the system that was not there. No framework to assist the families of Grenfell residents who turned up at the scene looking for information. Hospitals lacked the coordination to provide answers on loved-one’s status or location, callers to a helpline advertised on television found their desperate calls unanswered and heard an automated message before a voicemail beep.

Through Millett’ incisive questioning (channelled with gravitas and charisma by Cook), those on the stand reveal themselves to be part of a dangerous and unreliable community of profiteering builders and their suppliers, inept local government, an outdated and inflexible fire service, and lazy watchdogs and consultants (like those above who like to pass emails on to departments to handle, instead of taking action). All of these are covered by a central government obsessed with cutting funding and regulation where it can, with no heed to the real-world impact of these policies beyond voter’s tick.

Lord Eric Pickles, a former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, appears in a particularly harsh light. In Howard Crossley’s portrayal he comes across as irritable and bored with the inquiry’s questions and after speaking the line above “I wouldn’t come here to try to remove responsibility,” pleads that he could not possibly really be to blame.

Each witness is human. This was a tragedy of giant proportions and we get the sense that the verbal dodges each makes to pass the buck are to avoid admitting and accepting the crushing weight that holding themselves responsible would bear. Norton-Taylor and Kent make their tough case against the system but show admirable restraint in not painting these people as callous or malicious. In this affecting and sobering piece of theatre, they lay bare the awful facts that prove the infrastructure that is supposed to protect us is simply not fit for purpose. The last words go to Choucair, whose closing statement simply and elegantly reminds us once more of the scale of this tragedy, and the immediate need for full systemic change.

Runs until 25 February then tours

The Reviews Hub Score

Affecting and sobering

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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