Grenfell: Value Engineering review – vital verbatim staging
Scenes from the Grenfell Inquiry are presented in front of audiences
Value Engineering: Scenes from the Grenfell Inquiry, a not-for-profit verbatim dramatisation of the Grenfell Inquiry, does not start at the beginning, nor at the end (can there be an end for the bereaved?) but with the tragedy itself – which took 72 lives and changed others forever on June 14 2017. Covering the Phase two evidence section of the Inquiry between January 2020 and July 2021, elliptical scenes delve into history, tracing the moments – there are many – when this horrific fire could have been prevented and wasn't.
Instead, the £800,000 of savings that building contractor Rydon were asked to find by the Kensington and Chelsea tenant management organisation (KCTMO) for Grenfell's disastrous refurbishment were left unchecked. This led to replacing the fire-resistant external zinc cladding with the cheaper flammable aluminium polyethylene kind. Dubbed Value Engineering, this is the decision that the inquiry and this play returns to again and again.
But what is really on trial here? Theatre director Nicholas Kent and journalist Richard Norton-Taylor play with this idea and our empathies. An early account by witness Fireman David Badillo (Daniel Betts) for example, recalls a failed rescue attempt, drawing empathy from the audience even when he admits being unable to communicate with his commanders because his radio battery ran out.
Similarly, we sigh over the failure of a Fire Brigade Control Room Officer to advise someone to leave the building because of London Fire Brigade's Stay-Put Policy. When we get to the builders, the architects and the building inspectors, who signed off on the refurbishment without checking fire regulations, whose hostile arrogance makes us quicken to anger, our empathies are stretched. There are lies, cover-ups – we are tempted to focus on blaming. But when Richard Millet QC ( Ron Cook, who brings a little light comedy) is forced to ask the core participants "not to indulge in a merry-go-round of buck-passing" something shifts. It shifts even further when Derek Elroy as Leslie Thomas QC, a Black barrister for the bereaved victims, takes centre stage and addresses the audience thus, "What does Covid 19 have in common with Grenfell? Race and poverty." He adds, racism is the elephant in the room. As Thomas stares us down in direct address, we realise it's not just those who were involved with Grenfell's refurbishment who are on trial – it's British society as a whole.
The format is unfamiliar, the staging clinical, but it allows for directness. Some audience members cried. Others laughed mockingly as witnesses' lies were undone. For most of the time, you could have heard a pin drop. When it was first announced, the play (with a mostly white cast) drew criticism for sidelining Black and brown communities who were affected by the fire, but the focus is on the villains and here they are all white. There is a payoff, which shocks to the core.
There's nothing like seeing this evidence live, it conveys how easily bureaucratic incompetence, prejudice, corruption and lies in our society crystallises into evil. And sometimes in banal ways, if the email evidence is anything to go by.