”Grenfell: System Failure” review – forensically devastating verbatim theatre

Ron Cook (centre)
Ron Cook (centre)
© Tristram Kenton

This second verbatim play based on the Grenfell inquiry, a follow-up to last year’s Grenfell: Value Engineering, makes plain how the fire was the result of a confluence of buck-passing and neglect.

Featuring testimony from those affected by the tragedy alongside authority figures including former cabinet minister Eric Pickles (Howard Crossley), the production highlights failings at both the macro and micro level.

Perhaps the most eye-catching, as represented by the pompous Pickles (who continually says “at my level”, to reinforce both his status and ignorance), is the impact of the coalition government’s populist campaign against “red tape” and regulation. Boris Johnson’s assault on London Fire Brigade funding is also called out. These were ideological edicts that had devastating consequences, from the failure to prevent the use of flammable cladding to a shortage of response staff on the night itself.

Verbatim veterans Nicolas Kent and Richard Norton-Taylor judiciously edit the inquiry material to reveal how every system that should have safeguarded residents let them down. Richard Millett QC, played with calm authority by Ron Cook, asks questions ranging from the factual to the incredulous, backed up by on-screen evidence. He highlights one private message from a cladding marketing executive to another that simply reads “all we do is lie in here”.

Straightforwardly staged on a set imitating the inquiry chamber, Kent’s production wisely eschews theatrical gimmicks in favour of a clear presentation of testimony. Inevitably the most moving comes from those whose lives were forever changed. Hisam Choucair (Shahzad Ali), who lost six family members, suggests that racism contributed to a failure to provide proper state support in the aftermath. We also hear an account of the heroics of Mohamed Neda, who gave his life in order to aid his neighbours on the top floor.

The atmosphere is that of a lively, angry town hall meeting. A woman sitting near me heckled Eric Pickles for shamefully getting the number of victims wrong. Another in front of me sobbed. This is theatre that is relevant, moving, and forensically devastating. We can only pray that the lessons of the continuing inquiry have a similar impact.