Grenfell: System Failure. Scenes from the Inquiry review: a show that fills you with rage

 (Beresford Hodge)
(Beresford Hodge)

Any politician who talks blithely of “deregulation” or a “bonfire” of red tape should be forced to see this powerful piece of verbatim theatre, drawn from the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire.

Director Nicolas Kent and adapter Richard Norton-Taylor attribute the 72 deaths in the 2017 conflagration to sharp practice by those who refurbished the building, and official incompetence: but also to the paring back of safety controls and defunding of the emergency services. It’s an evening to fill you with cold rage.

This is the ninth verbatim play the two men have created together and the second they have distilled from the official Grenfell record. Like the first, which had the subtitle Value Engineering and appeared in 2021, it’s defiantly undramatic. At desks and lecterns, lawyers methodically question those implicated in or devastated by the fire. There are two lighting states: on and off.

The script embraces lots of knotty detail about cladding, combustible insulation and “compartmentalization”, plus dollops of careful legalese and documentary cross referencing. Some of the actors refer to screens or notes. It doesn’t matter. It feels real, and the unvarnished testimony is horrifically compelling.

We hear from Hisam Choucair, who lost six relatives in the inferno. He bleakly notes that his employer, TFL, dealt better with four unexpected terrorist bombs at different locations on 7/7 than the entire official apparatus did with a preventable – and predicted - fire in North Kensington.

 (©Tristram Kenton)
(©Tristram Kenton)

Imran Khan KC tells us about Mohamed Neda, a former Afghan army officer, who jumped to his death, overwhelmed by smoke. His wife and son, who he ushered to safety, stepped on corpses on the way down the building’s only emergency stairwell.

Officials who were complicit in mismanagement and cost-cutting mostly have the decency to appear ashamed. Apart from irascible former Communities and Local Government Minister Eric (now Lord) Pickles, who is portrayed as being annoyed the inquiry is disrupting his schedule, and gets the number of fatalities wrong.

Andrew Roe of the London Fire Brigade describes the atrocity and the mishandled aftermath as “the most appalling example of institutional failure… in recent British history”. Nick Hurd, appointed as the minister responsible for the police and fire service two days before the fire, says: “I was part of a system that failed.”

The lethal, forensic dryness of Ron Cook as chief interrogator Richard Millet QC is tempered by the mildness of Thomas Wheatley as Inquiry Chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick. But really, it’s the job of the actors, the director and the writer/editor to get out of the way and let the shocking material speak for itself.

And this quietly devastating show hits in the way that news reports simply can’t and in a way that the Inquiry’s report, due out later this year, probably won’t. Playing in three London theatres, two of them close to the burned-out tower, it’s a devastating homage to those who died and a plea for eventual justice. To steal a line from Death of a Salesman: attention must be paid.

To February 25 at the Playground: then Tabernacle Theatre February 27 to March 12; and Marylebone Theatre from March14 to 26;