Grenfell Tower housed many of the “have-nots” in a borough of great and conspicuous wealth, as we know from news analysis. The Tabernacle theatre, less than a mile away from the site of the fire in June 2017, sits squarely at the swanky end. This proximity carries a heavy symbolism in the staging of Guardian journalist Richard Norton-Taylor’s verbatim play, directed by Nicolas Kent, which summarises the ongoing Grenfell Tower inquiry, and it feels both pointed and discomforting.
Leslie Thomas QC (Derek Elroy), representing the bereaved, survivors and residents’ group, connects the gulf between rich and poor in the borough to a bigger social injustice. Grenfell, Thomas says, did not happen in a vacuum but was linked to race and poverty. This re-enactment also highlights the corporate machinations around the tower’s refurbishment – intent on driving down costs and amping up aesthetics – which played their part.
There is a gruellingly bureaucratic tone to the play, which at almost three hours long has been assiduously edited by Norton-Taylor (who has collaborated with Kent on several previous inquiry plays). The central focus – Phase 2 of the inquiry – sees several corporate figures being interviewed, from the architects, Studio E, to the main contractor for the refurb, Rydon, along with Harley Curtain Wall, the cladding company that wrapped the tower in flammable panels, and council figures.
But it is a particular kind of political theatre which makes no attempts to be dramatic, re-enacting the inquiry with an emphatic lack of theatricality: there is naturalistic lighting, no notable sound effects, and actors engage in a form of non-acting, uttering the words of council officials, manufacturing firms and project managers with every last stammer. Miki Jablkowska and Matt Eagland’s set is an inquiry room with overhead screens for magnifying images and emails.
What emerges is a heightened sense of what we already know; the drama does not shed new light on the tragedy but does highlight the abysmal corporate and council failures and like Thomas’s words, invites us to connect these to the wider world.
The fire brigade’s “stay put” policy is dealt with first – there are frustrating testimonies from a firefighter and a control room operator that encompass the few elements of human drama. The former, played by Daniel Betts, gives his failed account of getting to a 13-year-old alone in a flat. The latter, played by Claire Lams, tells a boy on the 19th floor to stay put despite his desperate and repeated pleas.
But the bigger horror is the “value engineering” by the corporate bodies which is shown through contract bidding and a cost-cutting that is blind to safety aspects despite numerous warnings, and the play as a whole shows a chillingly amoral capitalism at work.
Richard Millett QC (Ron Cook), counsel to the inquiry, warns against “buck passing” at the start but there is a prevailing sense of it in these testimonies. In Norton-Taylor’s edit, there is one single apology. The rest is a failing to recall, a sliding away from responsibility, a plea to ignorance. The apology comes from John Hoban (Howard Ward), a senior building control surveyor at the council, who admits he did not know the original zinc cladding was swapped for the cheaper aluminium composite material panels, which were flammable, until they were being installed on site.
Much of the horror comes from emails between the council and the various companies involved, sometimes in thrown-away lines. There are repeated questions about fire safety that go unanswered; there is correspondence from a concerned resident dubbed a “troublemaker”; an eerie moment of foreshadowing comes in another email with the subject headline: Grenfell Cladding. Claire Williams (Polly Kemp) the project manager of the Kensington and Chelsea tenant management organisation, writes: “I just had a Lakanal moment,”, referring to the Lakanal House fire of 2009 in Camberwell, yet still, the red flag is not raised.
But there is a sense of frustration by the end too because the inquiry has not concluded and justice in the real world has yet to be served, so this play feels premature and inconclusive. Instead we get a statement from Michael Mansfield QC (David Robb), which brings our attention back to the human cost and we are left with the names of the 72 dead on a screen and a keen sense of unfinished business.