Provocative post-Grenfell drama from estate-based dramatists SPID
It’s entirely appropriate that the first new play to seriously touch upon the Grenfell Tower tragedy comes from SPID, a youth charity based in the Kensal House Estate in Ladbroke Grove, barely a mile from Grenfell's ruined shell.
‘The Burning Tower’, by SPID artistic director Helena Thompson, is an impassioned, sporadically mischievous drama that may not go down as a great work, but certainly starts a conversation - not least by asking that the audience to come to the community centre of the estate. Though SPID does have an affiliation with the Bush Theatre, it is clearly its own company, and not a pet cause of posher neighbours.
There is the brief concern that ‘The Burning Tower’ might be awful, seeing as it starts with a naff socially conscious rap about the history of council estates. However, this particular balloon is humorously burst, as our hosts, Alice Franziska (Em) and Bianca Stephens (Sarah) start bickering about the best way to deliver a presentation on the history of social housing in the UK (Sarah thinks Em should lay off the rhymes).
Just when they're getting things together, things are further complicated by the arrival of an apparently dotty old dear (The Woman, played by Told By An Idiot co-founder Hayley Carmichael), who has little patience with their well-meaning presentation and keeps disrupting it - apparently by supernatural means.
Literally taking its name from a tarot card that denotes sudden, cataclysmic change, ‘The Burning Tower’ touches upon Grenfell sensitively, but does not make it the exact focus. Instead the show is more about the history, dignity, community and increasing precariousness of estate life in Britain. Provoked by Carmichael’s teasing oddball, the two friends start to row, and we’re given a startling insight into estate politics: Em’s parents took advantage of right-to-buy, and as a result of nutsoid London property prices they are effectively wealthy – or at least, secure. Sarah’s didn’t, and she now faces a horribly uncertain future – hopefully not as dark as that of the Grenfell victims, but equally uncared for.
‘The Burning Tower’ is rough around the edges: for starters I'm really not sure Carmichael’s character really works. Still, a bit of roughness feels like kind of the point of SPID – while grander theatres are still plotting their response, this feels like a dispatch from the frontline.