There’s an email projected on the wall about two-thirds of the way through this emotionally gruelling verbatim theatre piece about the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower blaze which has this cheery sign off: ‘much grassy ass (got to start practising!), Cate’.
The email itself concerns the use of materials in the aesthetic improvement of Grenfell so that it didn’t remain an ‘eyesore’ to the architects of a new building next door. Those materials, specifically an unsuitable combustible cladding, ultimately led to the deaths of 72 residents and visitors.
You can’t really blame ‘Cate’ for practising her Spanglish. How was she to know? But hindsight is a tricky thing, right? And it’s never looked trickier than here, in what one QC calls a ‘merry-go-round of buck-passing’.
This play – which runs at the Tabernacle, a Notting Hill community theatre just a few hundred metres from the tower – comes from director Nicolas Kent and editor Richard Norton-Taylor. The duo are responsible for several acclaimed ‘tribunal plays’, which are effectively edited versions of real-life public inquests, from the murder of Stephen Lawrence to the Arms to Iraq inquiry. The bulk of the scenes in ‘Value Engineering’ (the practice of making savings in construction and renovation by choosing lower-grade materials than originally specified) are about the small fry: firefighters, their controllers, cladding installers, various mid-rank company wonks, all of whom in one way or another contributed to the June 2017 tragedy.
What comes most strongly out of this work is not righteous anger about the deaths of some of the poorest people in one of the capital’s richest boroughs. It’s that we all live and work in a culture that has two aims: making money (and getting the credit for making money), and avoiding the blame when things go tits up.
‘Value Engineering’ is full of figures: how long it took the fire to spread from a fourth-floor kitchen to the roof (30 minutes); the cost-saving of losing the original zinc cladding (£376,0000); the breakdown of the dead (67 residents, four visitors and ‘one of unknown heritage’). But for all that, it speeds along with brief, urgent scenes.
The cast is all great, but British stage and TV legend Ron Cook is simply outstanding as Counsel to the Inquiry Richard Millett: it’s a stunning, understated piece of acting from the 73-year-old. The only real bum note is a strange, cod-messianic spotlit turn from David Robb as pro bono legend Michael Mansfield QC. It’s a curious directorial misstep in a piece whose power and impact come from the horror contained in the most mundane of discussions and those cheerily signed-off emails we all send every day.