In the early hours of June 14, 2017, a flat fire at the council-owned Grenfell Tower in North Kensington spread across the entire 24 storey residential building, thanks to the recent installation of cheap flammable cladding that was illegal in much of Europe. Of the tower’s diverse, largely working-class population, 72 people died, many of them children, in part thanks to ‘stay in place’ fire regulations that ordered people to remain in their flats in the case of a fire.
You know all this, but it feels right to put the context up front and centre rather than coyly drip-drip it in.
‘Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors’ is a verbatim play: that is to say it has a script performed by actors that’s edited from real words that were really spoken by the people being depicted. That doesn’t mean the script just appeared one day: it is the culmination of years of interviews conducted with Grenfell survivors and written into a text by the writer Gillian Slovo.
I’m sometimes cynical of stuff like this: the idea that maybe there’s a well-meaning desire to ‘respond’ to a tragedy that feels more like a show of solidarity than meaningful art. But for me Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike’s co-production really, really worked.
Firstly, it is a meticulous documentary-style explainer as to the background of the tragedy. In the first half – entirely focussed on the time before the fire – we meet the 12 survivors who form the play’s core cast of characters. Things that spring out: Grenfell sounds like it was by and large a pretty nice place. It had once been highly regarded by the local council - a ‘60s replacement for old, unsafe slum housing - but had increasingly become viewed as a drag on the wealthy borough. And there was a committee of residents aggrieved at what they viewed as shoddy, cost-cutting landlord behaviour from the council, especially the bargain basement 2015-16 renovation that added the cladding.
Secondly, it is deeply moving to see the care and respect with which the play treats its subjects. Though it builds to horror, it starts off gently, as we’re eased into the verbatim concept, with the actors explaining a little about themselves, a little about the survivor they’re playing, and a little about how they’ll be playing them. Much of the framing of the show is not for the general audience, but specifically for anyone traumatised by the tragedy: we’re told there will be no footage of the fire itself used, and that it’s possible to leave any time. There is little gratuitous dwelling on those who died – death is everywhere in the show, but there is no milking of individual tragedies; this is about centring those who lived.
The final way in which the play works is also possibly the hardest thing to admit about it. The fact is that the second half – which details the survivors’ experiences of the fire – is both utterly horrifying and absolutely riveting. There is a bare minimum of bells and whistles to the staging and Georgia Lowe’s set. But the intercutting between the survivors’ accounts of the night and those of firefighters questioned at the inquest is electrifying, edge-of-the-seat gripping. From the handful of residents who immediately ignored the ‘stay in place’ advice and ran out of the building the moment they smelled smoke, to the mum of three who remained in her flat until the last minute, it is a remarkable, agonising, heart-pounding hour or so of the show.
Is it vulgar or disrespectful to acknowledge that in part ‘Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors’ is good because it’s entertaining? I think it’s justified: knowing in detail what these people went through, how narrow some escapes were, how they overcame a system that was, in its way, trying to kill them is just infinitely more meaningful than dispassionate news footage.
Saying this play is a ‘fitting tribute’ to its subjects feels a little wrong: certainly the only fitting tribute to the dead would be jail time for the people responsible. But I suppose the ultimate point of this play is to demonstrate that what the survivors of Grenfell went through matters to a wider world, that they are people who count as much as their near neighbours David Beckham and Robbie Williams. If it wasn’t my job to see it, I’m not sure I’d feel entirely comfortable seeing a show on the subject, like it was misery tourism or something. But I’d have been wrong. Whether it enacts change or not, it is a tremendous piece of theatre as testimony, and the more people that see it – the more space it takes up – the better.