In Grenfell: System Failure, Director Nicolas Kent revisits his well trodden approach of taking excerpts from inquiry transcripts to provide an accessible, if at times hard to listen to, insight into the second phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.
He says that the approach is effective and that by matching the actors to the real people, it lends a sense of reality to the proceedings. He bookends the play with the testimony of Hisam Choucair who shares his experience of trying to find his family on that warm June night in 2017 and offers us some solutions as to what could be improved so that those who are affected by future tragedies are better treated by the authorities.
Former Conservative Secretary of State, Eric Pickles is a gift to the production company. His pompous testimony brings some awkward levity to the two hour long production, showing that, as he says, ‘at his level’ he clearly had no idea about the detailed work of his officials. He deigns to spend time at the Inquiry, hurrying on lead Counsel before having to quickly apologise after he has clearly been advised to do so in a quiet backroom of the Inquiry.
Civil servant, Brian Martin, is well cast; actor Nigel Betts captures his mannerisms and voice. The title of Pete Apps’ recent book about the fire, takes a line from Inquiry evidence where Martin is alleged to have said ‘Show me the bodies’ in response to questions about the need to change building regulations. That prescient phrasing, apocryphal or not, is a reminder about the need for civil servants to balance political demands with good public policy making. The Inquiry transcripts are mired in bureaucratic speak, process and a world that is alien to most people and yet dictates how society functions. Fire safety is not at the top of most peoples to do lists.
The audience is small on day three of this run and there are audible gasps from them at some points. The most powerful and most distressing part of the play is listening to Leslie Thomas KC read the words of the family of Saber Nader. Kent is brave and shares their words about this quiet, patient man who helped his neighbours; it exposes the suffering and pain of those who were in the Tower that night, 72 of which did not survive.
Kent has reprised the same actors to play lead Counsel, Richard Millett and Inquiry Chair, Sir Martin Moore-Bick. They work well together and the Inquiry room is familiar with its blue walls and utilitarian furniture. We are reminded of Covid with some virtual evidence from Arconic. We hear from cladding manufacturer, Kingspan too, the words of its staff broadcast at the Inquiry, in the display of what they thought were private exchanges but are now etched on our memories. It shows the slack, careless attitudes to fire safety from those who sold the materials that clad Grenfell Tower before the fire.
Sitting down to talk with Kent after the production, he has an intensity and kindness that speaks to a broader desire to ensure that the Grenfell Tower fire is not forgotten; that the ‘merry go round of buck-passing’ does not result in silence and a void but answers and change. He decided not to end the play with the closing statements of lead Counsel, instead choosing to let Hisam do that and offer some hope that change will be meaningful.
Like his first play, Grenfell: Value Engineering, he leaves us with the names of 72 who died, their names written stark in white on a black screen, the actors gone, the audience silent and reflecting for 72 seconds.
Grenfell: System Failure continues as the Playground Theatre, London and then transfers to The Tabernacle from 27 February before ending its run at the Marylebone Theatre on 26 March.
Tickets available from www.grenfellsystemfailure.com