5 stars out of 5
Dorfman theatre, London
Piling up devastating detail, this play with a remarkable cast shockingly lays bare the abject failures behind this disaster
During dramas about a national catastrophe – in films such as Jimmy McGovern’s Hillsborough (1996) and Paul Greengrass’s United 93 (2006) – viewers have the sickening sense of watching real people doomed to die horribly. A variant comes in the National Theatre’s exploration of the 2017 fire at Grenfell Tower in west London that took 72 lives and devastated hundreds more. The subtitle reveals that the nine residents depicted all got out.
It begins with the lights up as the cast, out of character, explain that if the content overwhelms us, we can leave and return. No images or sounds of fire will be used and the residents dramatised have consented to the words used having been taken from interviews with novelist and writer Gillian Slovo.
This culturally kind prologue made me fear that the show might not be cruel enough to the architects of this disaster of politics and construction. But Slovo – with directors Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike – piles up devastating detail from the verbatim survivor accounts, public inquiry transcripts and TV interviews.
The central charge is that the conflagration at Grenfell Tower started with sparks from a promised bonfire of regulation and red-tape by David Cameron. Tory ministers failed to heed a coroner’s warning after an earlier block blaze killed six. Cladding materials that failed safety tests (one flare-up almost torching the laboratory) were banned elsewhere but allowed in the light-touch UK.
It is convincingly suggested that local authority housing policy resulted in a sort of social cleansing with tenants – often diverse or disadvantaged – isolated and ignored in a corner of a super-rich postcode. Residents who raised concerns were told in terms to be grateful for having a potential inferno over their heads. Such prejudice led to a police riot squad being dispatched to Grenfell, in case local people kicked-off about the dangers.
Theatre historians may be bemused that Lloyd could have directed Mamma Mia! (stage and screen) and also co-directed this. Both the celebratory and accusatory shows, though, show impeccable control of space and structure to engage emotion. Georgia Lowe’s spare design employs 10 cardboard legal boxes that serve, across three gripping hours, as chairs or lecterns, until their real meaning is shockingly revealed.
I have only otherwise encountered this unusual tone of forensic fury in McGovern’s Hillsborough. Much as courtroom dramas utilise the audience as jury, we are in effect empanelled as coroner, and most nights will surely reach a consensus of amazement that no one is yet jailed.
The play ends with a listing of the dead and a call to activism. As this is an ensemble masterpiece, I will name the full remarkable cast who move smoothly between their roles: Joe Alessi, Gaz Choudhry, Jackie Clune, Houda Echouafni, Keaton Guimarães-Tolley, Ash Hunter, Pearl Mackie, Rachid Sabitri, Michael Shaeffer, Sarah Slimani, Nahel Tzegai and Lisa Zahra.