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Educational and provocative: Peter Apps reviews 'Grenfell: System Failure'

Shahzad Ali as Hisam Choucair and Thomas Wheatley as Sir Martin Moore-Bick | Photographer: Tristram Kenton

4 min read

Richard Norton-Taylor and Nick Kent have provided us a true public service by bringing shocking verbatim scenes from the inquiry to the stage

Keeping up with the details which emerged across 400 days of evidence at the Grenfell Tower Inquiry was a mammoth task, largely abandoned by the United Kingdom’s media long before proceedings reached their end. 

This means the story of how an “entirely avoidable” disaster was allowed to kill 72 people is still known by far too few. 

Here to fix that gap is Grenfell: System Failure, the second instalment of a verbatim play using scenes from the inquiry, compiled and brought to the stage by writer Richard Norton-Taylor and director Nick Kent. 

Their first play Value Engineering, which ran in November 2021 while the inquiry was still sitting, tackled the messy web of companies involved in refurbishing the tower and how cost pressures pushed them towards cheap but ultimately dangerous products.

But it came too early to get in the darker evidence about how these products were manufactured, tested, and sold and how our regulations were allowed to become weak enough to allow them to be used. This instalment picks up on this story. 

The stage is a close-to-exact replica of the hearing room and the actors mimic their subjects exactly. Ron Cook, playing lead counsel Richard Millett QC, nails the icy distain which inflected his questioning of certain witnesses.

Howard Crossley, playing former communities secretary Lord Eric Pickles, brings to life the creepy vanity and lack of remorse he displayed – fiddling with his signet rings as he caveats any acceptance of responsibility by saying someone “at my level” would never meet the rank and file civil servants responsible for building regulations.

The infamous moment when he complained that the questioning was taking too long and placing his afternoon of scheduled meetings at risk almost drew pantomime boos.

Criticisms could be made: at times it would be difficult to follow the exact significance of what is being discussed without pre-existing knowledge and there are inevitably things left out, such as the extraordinary testimony of former employees of insulation firm Celotex.

But this would miss the point. However the play cut the vast subject matter, something would have been omitted and the precise details matter less than the overall understanding it imparts.

Ron Cook, playing lead counsel Richard Millett QC, nails the icy distain which inflected his questioning of certain witnesses

Anyone who sees the play will grasp that manufacturers knew products were potentially risky and sold them anyway; that the London Fire Brigade was aware at a senior level of the risk of cladding fires but failed to plan for one in London and, crucially, that the British state was made acutely aware of the risks but prioritised deregulation over preventing a disaster. 

But more than that, and this is the true value of the play, they will experience an emotional response to these revelations. 

At the performance I attended, an audience member shouted out “Jesus Christ” on seeing staff at insulation manufacturer Kingspan write “all we do is lie in here” in relation to a particular fire test. 

There was hollow laughter as a witness from cladding company Arconic danced around accepting that an email saying their cladding “burns like paper” meant she knew it was dangerous. 

And – just before the interval – after the audience heard the story of the life and death of Mohamed “Saber” Neda, I turned to see the two women sitting behind me openly sobbing.

This play will educate its audience about why what happened at Grenfell happened, but it will also provoke the tears and anger which are the correct response to the horrifying, infuriating evidence the inquiry has exposed. And for that, it is a true public service.

Peter Apps is Deputy editor of Inside Housing and author of Show Me the Bodies: How We Let Grenfell Happen

Grenfell: System Failure – Scenes from the Inquiry
Directed by: Nicolas Kent
Venues: Tabernacle Theatre, W11 until 12 March
Marylebone Theatre, NW1 from 14 March to 26 March

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