sun 25/02/2024

Grenfell: System Failure, Playground Theatre review - if this doesn't make you angry, nothing will | reviews, news & interviews

Grenfell: System Failure, Playground Theatre review - if this doesn't make you angry, nothing will

Grenfell: System Failure, Playground Theatre review - if this doesn't make you angry, nothing will

Second instalment of urgent documentary drama condemns the system that let the tower burn

Brutally genial: Shahzad Ali, left, and Thomas Wheatley in 'Grenfell: System Failure'Images - Tristram Kenton

It’s been five years since 72 people died in the Grenfell Tower fire in West London. Five years and no arrests, as countless placards and posters around the neighbourhood point out.

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry into how the tragedy occurred – why it was allowed to occur by hundreds of people – concluded in November 2022, with enough material that Richard Norton-Taylor and Nicolas Kent have been able to construct another devastating verbatim play. Where Grenfell: Value Engineering (2021) left us speechless, System Failure makes us rage.

The Playground Theatre is about 10 minutes’ walk from Grenfell itself, which at the time of writing is lit up, a memorial around the outside reading “forever in our hearts”. This new production will tour to the Tabernacle in Notting Hill and the Marylebone Theatre. It’s hard to imagine it being staged outside of West London; the presence of local residents is a vital part of the show. They laugh knowingly as witnesses are introduced by slides that are damning in their simplicity, indicating that some of the people who didn’t think to prevent the tower from being clad in flammable material still hold the same jobs.

The set-up is the same as the first play, which was produced before the Inquiry ended. One by one, witnesses are questioned about their role in the fire; the only logistical difference is that one appears via Zoom. Miki Jabikowska and Matt Eagland’s set is the same too: desks of light wood, a blue back wall reading "Grenfell Tower Inquiry", government-grey carpet. Ron Cook (pictured below, with deputy stage manager Olivia Haw) returns as an impressively restrained Richard Millett QC, Counsel to the Inquiry. Thomas Wheatley also reprises his role as chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick. He is a largely taciturn presence, speaking mostly to deliver brutally genial lines, such as when he assures Lord (Eric) Pickles (Howard Crossley) that he will be notified in good time if he needs to cancel his afternoon appointments.
Olivia Haw (L) and Ron Cook in 'Grenfell: System Failure' at the Playground TheatrePickles is the clearest villain of the piece; Crossley plays him with a blithe lack of self-awareness which propels him to call for treating the dead with dignity even as he misremembers the exact number of victims. Other witnesses are shifty, unable to say why they didn’t follow up on discrepancies in the tower’s design. The play moves around in time: the testimony of Nick Hurd (David Michaels), Minister for Grenfell Victims and the last named witness, relates to the council’s failure to take charge of the immediate situation. It feels a bit tacked-on. Perhaps the council’s response or lack thereof – as well as Boris Johnson gutting the London Fire Brigade when he was mayor – could have made up a third play.

Johnson isn’t here to answer for his decisions, and neither are the other people ultimately responsible for the fire. Millett cites a letter written by David Cameron on 6 April 2011 imploring ministers to get rid of as much regulation as possible, “to give people greater freedom and personal responsibility.” Exceptions should, of course, be made for “fire safety and food safety” – but Pickles’ testimony makes it clear that building regulations weren’t exempted. Cameron writes that “the sense of responsibility in this country [...] has been [...] undermined by years of over-regulation.” What Norton-Taylor and Kent show us is the opposite: by stripping away the rules it didn’t like, the coalition government also stripped away any sense of responsibility for things going wrong.

The starkest contrast with Value Engineering is that this time around, we hear much more of the victims’ stories. Farhad Neda lived on the 23rd floor with his parents Shakila and Mohamed, called Saber, which means "patience" in Persian. Saber “was the epitome of patience,” says Imran Khan QC (Tanveer Ghani, pictured below) – while his wife and son made their way down the smoke-choked steps, he stayed behind to comfort frightened neighbours. He eventually jumped from the tower and died of his injuries, while Shakila and Farhad survived.
Tanveer Ghani (L) and Thomas Wheatley in 'Grenfell: System Failure' at the Playground TheatreThere are hundreds of other stories like this, but by focusing on just one, Norton-Taylor and Kent show us not just the horror of what the Grenfell community endured, but their bravery and kindness. Hissam Choucair (Shahzad Ali), who lost six members of his family to the fire, speaks of how within hours “people of all faiths and backgrounds were there unloading food water clothes accessories [...] and giving them out on the streets.” Local residents helped each other when their council and their government would not. “It’s an extraordinary community,” says Hurd, “that deserved a lot better.” System Failure is an extraordinary piece of theatre which will hopefully help to ensure no community has to suffer such horrors again.

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