The National Theatre considers it a moral duty to stage state-of-the-nation plays and a number of these have turned out disastrously. The Guardian gave one star to Common, the play starring Anne-Marie Duff, about common law and land in Britain. Common is the kind of play the Guardian usually considers ‘urgent’, or ‘essential’—and if you see that in a review you know it’s going to be boring. Theatre shouldn’t be urgent or essential—it should be a wonderful luxury born of a society that’s thriving, and since we do have the time and amenities to make theatre, surely it isn’t urgent.
Thankfully the reviews of Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors don’t use the word ‘urgent’, but call it instead, ‘moving’, ‘powerful’ and most accurately, ‘an inquiry’ into what happened that night in June 2017. The play is inquiring, and includes parts of the official inquiry into the fire. It is also gripping and deeply engaging, which, given all the bureaucrats and council authorities, is a real surprise.
Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike co-direct, and their judgements are considered, subtle and tasteful. The actors are both warm and restrained—there is no hint of melodrama or indulgence. They first emerge from the audience while the house lights are still up. They introduce themselves with their real names—‘My name is Pearl Mackie and I’ll be playing Natasha Elcock. Natasha lived on the seventh floor of Grenfell tower.’ Each actor does the same: their name, the name of the person they play, and their floor number.
The floor number bears significance later, as the glaring faults of the Royal Burgh council that looked after Grenfell become apparent. Natasha used to live on the fourth floor, but when the council started poorly-planned renovations to the tower, they changed all the floor numbers and no one knew where they lived anymore. Many of the residents couldn’t explain where their flat was to the firemen trying to rescue them on 14 June 2017.
The first act gives us a picture of Grenfell before the council started cutting corners. Natasha didn’t see her home as a place for poor people. It was a council estate in the middle of Notting Hill. She shared a neighbourhood with David Beckham and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Natasha was proud to live there. The tower residents were friendly and often opened their front doors so they could cook and watch their children together. From the higher flats the residents could see the whole of London. ‘This is my city,’ says Antonio Roncolato (played by Joe Alessi) although he was born and bred in Italy. ‘I am Italian of course, but I am also British and London is my city.’
Edward Daffarn (played by Michael Schaeffer) remembers when things in the tower started to go downhill. When Daffarn’s kitchen cupboards needed replacing, the landlord put in mismatched ones, so the work surfaces were different heights. Several residents were told they needed to move their boilers into the hallway. Who has a boiler in the middle of their hallway? Who cares. The Royal Burgh of Kensington and Chelsea council had decided it was cheaper and quicker to move the new boilers from the kitchens to the hallways.
Daffarn organised a group of residents who decided to defy the council authorities— and that’s when the intimidation started. ‘You should be grateful to live here,’ they were told. Shut up and be quiet because you don’t deserve what you’ve got. It was this corner-cutting that led to the catastrophic decision to dress the whole tower exterior in flammable cladding—stuff that was banned in just about every other country in Europe. The new renovations also meant that 64 of the building’s fire doors were not compliant with Health and Safety. The council didn’t care. Even after the fire, the renovators didn’t all come clean. Some of them defended their decisions.
The play relays all this information clearly and with forceful effect. Most harrowing of all are the recordings of the phone calls from residents to the fire department on the night of the 14 June, 2017. 9:11 pm, 9:41 pm, 10:41. As the fire spreads the residents comply with the emergency guidance—stay put, don’t leave your flat. This is possibly the worst safety advice ever given. Some of the residents fled at first sign of danger, using the stairs because the lifts weren’t reliable.
Some residents had predicted the fire risk. One time, a guest was smoking out of the window and dropped a cinder on the sill. It burned right through the plastic. That’s when Daffarn knew a fire was inevitable. Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors is a three-hour show that earns its length— not many plays can justify more than two. It is not indulgent, nor is it a gruelling tragic play. It is a fitting record of exactly how the councilmen and the government contributed to the deaths of 72 residents of the Royal Burgh of Kensington and Chelsea.