Grenfell: System Failure, 2023
Photo: Tristram Kenton
  • Theatre, Drama
  • Recommended


‘Grenfell: System Failure’ review

3 out of 5 stars

This second verbatim dramatisation of the Grenfell Inquiry is a grimly one-note symphony of establishment buck passing

Chris Waywell

Time Out says

The second part of this verbatim theatre work based on the transcripts of the Grenfell Inquiry starts with a trigger warning. The audience is told that some of the evidence is so disturbing that it will be flagged in advance so that people can leave the auditorium if they choose. When we get the warning, just before the interval, no one does.

It’s a testament to the respect that the disaster is accorded by this work and by this community. These performances take place in venues within walking distance of the tragedy. I pass a twin to the tower on the way to the theatre. Grenfell’s shadow hangs over North Kensington, literally and figuratively. But is that enough to make compelling theatre? Yes and no. When I saw the first part, ‘Grenfell: Value Engineering’, nearly 18 months ago, I felt the bleak staging and washed-out performances perfectly suited the inevitably gruelling material. This was an emotive catastrophe staged in the driest possible way to make its point: 72 people died at Grenfell to make some costs spreadsheets look healthier. Those people were betrayed by sub-par materials, engineering and attitudes.

‘Grenfell: System Failure’ continues in this vein, examining the endless bureaucratic buck-passing that left so many overlooked, poor and immigrant people at risk of death from the very fabric of their homes. Bookended by testimony from a man who lost six members of his family in the fire, it delivers blow after blow on the ‘not my fault’ culture of twenty-first-century Britain. The evidence is peppered with ‘I don’t recalls’ and ‘institutional failures’. Responsibility climbs up the chain as inexorably as the flames swept up the 23 floors of Grenfell: the contractors, the building managers, the council, local government, the cladding manufacturers, the Building Research Establishment and even the former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles. 

Unfortunately, because this ‘system’ was largely created by the people within it to cover their own arses, the cumulative effect is a bleakly one-dimensional play. Pickles is produced as a boo-hiss villain, with his pressing lunch engagements and inability to remember his own staff, but while he duly elicits sardonic laughter and catcalls from the audience, he’s a distraction, albeit a fatuous one. 

Where ‘Value Engineering’ invoked righteous anger, ‘System Failure’ is just relentlessly depressing, portraying a society where no one takes pride in what they do and where government at the highest level wants to do less and less under the guise of giving people more ‘freedom’ so it can avoid being blamed for anything. Some fine performances – especially from Ron Cook and Thomas Wheately – do stand out, but they can’t do much with the grim pall that this work casts.      


£20-£32. Runs 2hr 20min
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