In an immersive theatre experience from the National Theatre we have the privilege of hearing from those who survived the Grenfell Tower Fire in 2017. It is a deeply moving and important contribution to our collective understanding of what took place that night.
This is the fourth play that I have seen about the Grenfell Tower fire. I was worried it was becoming an industry and would be dramatising a tragedy for entertainment, but this is a long way from what Gillian Slovo’s new play sets out to achieve.
Grenfell in the Words of Survivors now on at the National Theatre in London takes the verbatim testimony of those who escaped the fire on 14 June 2017 to makes a profound contribution to our understanding of what happened that terrible night.
Through an ensemble cast that takes on many different roles through the three-hour immersive experience, the two-act play starts with a tender story of community cohesion and sense of belonging for the residents of the Tower who arrived with different stories but united with a common purpose – the desire for a place to call home.
The unfolding story of how Grenfell Tower was refurbished and clad in the flammable materials that fuelled the inferno on that warm summer night is familiar and yet remains shocking and incredulous to everyone gathered in the audience. Gillian Slovo interviewed many people – survivors, bereaved, witnesses, experts and others – to collect raw material for the play. With some heavy editing, she creates a narrative for the well-chosen actors to grasp and bring alive on the spartan set.
The actors move around the set where the only props are storage boxes marked with numbers. I realise immediately the significance of the boxes, marked with the floor number and the flat number for the residents who never got to return to their homes. Where they could, investigators retrieved precious items picked out from the debris and returned them in these boxes to their owners, some of whom we learn here could not bear to open them.
There is a palpable change to the atmosphere in the theatre as the play proceeds through the second act and the trauma of being in the Tower that night is given voice. With some incredible lighting effects, the theatre takes on darkness and menace; the fragility of loss is laid bare.
The play ends in an extraordinary way which I won’t spoil but suffice to say it’s a deeply moving conclusion that contains a clarion call to action. The actors implore us to not forget, to continue to remember the 72 who died needlessly in the fire. It gives impetus to the drive for changes to the way that high rise buildings are constructed, refurbished and managed to ensure that the conditions for a similar conflagration no longer exist.