Lord Pickles, played by Howard Crossley, gives evidence on the government's role in fire safety policy. Image: Grenfell: System Failure, Scenes From The Inquiry
“Fire safety is a very subjective subject,” says Brian Martin, a construction professional responsible for government building regulations, speaking at the official inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster.
Except this time it’s actor Nigel Betts saying the words, and it’s in a play performed a stone’s throw from where the tower still stands. He’s attempting to wriggle around questions about why data that showed the flammable nature of cladding materials used in Grenfell Tower was sat on for nine years.
Watching this level of shoulder-shrugging, I found myself incredulous. But it was just the first time I opened the performance guide to check Grenfell: System Failure is really – really!? – a piece of verbatim theatre and not a fictionalised courtroom drama.
The second moment of incredulity came when government minister Lord Pickles, perfectly played by Howard Crossley, was questioned on his role in the deregulation of the construction industry while secretary of state for communities and local government. He had asked how much longer the inquiry would take given “people have literally travelled from other countries to talk to me [this afternoon]”.
It’s almost six years since fire engulfed Grenfell Tower in West London, killing 72 people. But in spotlighting the level of outrageous arrogance, dismissiveness and callousness that characterised the real world inquiry, this play gives an outlet for fury that has continued to simmer.
The tower still stands, just minutes from the Playground Theatre where Grenfell: System Failure is being performed before moving to central London. The inquiry, held from September 2017 to November 2022, disclosed 319,956 documents across phases one and two. The hours and hours of recordings are publicly available.
The play is the second instalment in Richard Norton-Taylor and Nicolas Kent’s reenactment of the public inquiry into the fire, based entirely on the words of those involved in the final stage of the inquiry. It follows on from Grenfell: Value Engineering, which dealt with those responsible for the disastrous refurbishment of the block of flats.
The bare-bones performance, set in a barren courtroom, pieces together testimony from the inquiry to interrogate why government regulators ignored, or were ignorant to, the evidence showing the dangers of the flammable cladding materials installed in Grenfell Tower.
There’s no dramatisation, no space for artistic licence to over-exaggerate for dramatic effect. The BBC has announced it will create a three-part show to piece together the stories of survivors, family members and firefighters. It feels too soon to be turning this tragedy into a TV drama, when bereaved families are still seeking a form of justice. But in this play based entirely on what was said in court, the speakers aren’t being villainised through a script, they’ve done that perfectly well by themselves.
Still, it would be a serious omission not to mention that, at times, the technical, corporate speak feels incredibly dull. As you struggle to follow the detailed descriptions of “aluminium composite material rainscreen cladding panels” (just cladding, to you and I) or “combustible product polyisocyanurate” (that’s foam core insulation) it’s tempting for the brain to press snooze.
But this is the strategy at the heart of this unique play. It shows how, separated from the potential consequences of their decisions by a computer screen and high pay cheque, multiple people were able to gloss over the corporate jargon of fire safety, and pass the buck to someone else.
Among the dry language, the gut-wrenching testimony delivered by leading lawyer Imran Khan on how Mohamed Saber Nader died in the fire, as he comforted women on his floor, is sobering. Saber had been told by the London Fire Brigade to stay put, rather than attempt to leave the burning building, unaware that the tower had been wrapped in kindling in all but name. It was the decision to follow these instructions that politician Jacob Rees-Mogg said lacked “common sense”, let’s not forget.
After the interval, a few disgusted laughs even splutter out when witnesses deny a certain piece of knowledge, only to be confronted with evidence in the form of an email showing quite the opposite. The bare-faced lies are a sight to behold. There’s even some heckling from audience members, bubbling over with anger when Lord Pickles’ character exits the room.
In a moment particularly relevant to the present day, we are reminded how the Fire Brigades Union’s warnings of the impact of austerity and reduction in staffing went unheard. Funding cuts meant there were fewer staff in the control room to handle 999 calls the night of the fire, and in some cases, vital information about people who were trapped was not passed on to firefighters on the ground.
There’s a scary sense of déjà vu, given the recent threat of strike action called by the FBU who are, like a broken record, continuing to beg for enough funding to do their jobs saving lives.
We’re left questioning whether responsibility lies at the feet of a system that failed to hold any one individual accountable, or the many people within that system who turned a blind eye to the warning signs in front of them.
When it finally comes, it’s a relief for someone to take a level of responsibility. Nick Hurd, minister of state for policing and the fire service (played by David Micheals), admits his shame in the “failure of the system I was part of”. But it doesn’t feel enough.
Inquiries into government mishandling – such as the ongoing Covid-19 investigation – frequently drag on so long and are so arduous that it feels they’re designed to be kept out of the daily news cycle. Hidden among thousands of pages of evidence, couched in corporate speak and technical terms, admissions of guilt or bare-faced lies are lost.
The daily news cycle was not built to handle complexities like these, but theatre can. By bringing us an edited version of the inquiry, Grenfell: System Failure highlights the most crucial parts, provoking such anger that the lessons learnt – or shirked – are burned into your mind long after the courtroom is adjourned.