In 2021, the not-for-profit play Grenfell: Value Engineering – Scenes from the Grenfell Inquiry ran at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill, west London, then at the Birmingham Rep. It was a verbatim dramatisation of testimony from the Grenfell Tower inquiry. A performance from the Tabernacle is televised here in two parts, with the simplified title of Grenfell (Channel 4). Jon Snow introduces it with a short and devastating explanation of why this play exists. He recalls meeting 12-year-old Firdaws Hashim two months before the fire, when he chaired a schools essay competition, which she won. She died in the fire, along with her parents and two brothers. The hope, says Snow, is that nothing like this will ever happen again.
After seeing this gruesome account of buck-passing and repeated denials of corporate culpability, I am not sure that hope is what we are left with. It has been five years since the Grenfell fire. It is worth watching this production while remembering that still now, no criminal charges have been brought. During the Jubilee celebrations, the community group Justice4Grenfell laid out a street party table in the shadow of the tower, inscribing the plates with the names of the victims and the words, “72 dead. And still no arrests? How come?”
When the play was first announced, but before it had been performed, there was debate online over whether it was appropriate to “dramatise” the tragedy, and whether it would be a case of white, middle-class luvvies appropriating the terrible events of that night for their art. But this is not a dramatisation so much as a carefully chosen selection of real evidence, designed to tell the story of what happened and suggest some of the many reasons why. It is, of course, about poverty and race. Most of the victims were working-class people of colour living in social housing in one of the richest parts of the country.
The play is highly procedural. This is a story told in acronyms, codes and time stamps. Barristers refer to witness statements, memos, phone transcripts, CCTV, flowcharts and emails, and show them on screen. But this technical approach is not hard to follow, and gives an immersive feel. The only reminders that this is a play, not scenes from the inquiry, are the occasional shots of an audience watching in rapt silence.
Phase one of the inquiry began in May 2018 and ended in December that year. It aimed to provide a factual narrative of what happened and begins with accounts given by members of the fire service. An actor plays the first firefighter to enter the tower, as he describes confusion on the night, the decisions he made and why. A control room officer talks of “something entirely different from what had ever happened before”, and describes how long it took for the “stay put” advice to be changed to tell people to leave.
It is harrowing from start to finish, though the reasons for this shift and evolve. The evidence given during phase two of the inquiry comes from the corporate side: the architects and the contractors. A flowchart, explaining the different firms involved in the refurbishment of Grenfell finished just a year before the fire, is useful, if only to keep track of the outrageous abdication of responsibility and blame-shifting that occurs.
This is a litany of damning indictments, and the success of this play might be in making the wider public aware of the egregious failures of the many bodies involved in the tower’s refurbishment. The cladding was seen as an aesthetic choice, a way of making 1970s social housing look “nicer”. The architectural firm that won the contract, Studio E, had no experience on high-rise residential buildings, and one of the architects admits to being “a little green on process and technicality” in an email shown on screen.
Everyone passes responsibility to another department. Costs are cut and money saved. There are no sprinklers installed, and a claim is made that the cladding materials used were “inert and would not burn at all”, despite heavy evidence to the contrary. A resident who expresses concern over fire safety is dismissed as “a known troublemaker”. Again, these are verbatim accounts from the inquiry itself. There is no dramatisation required, just an editing that clarifies what the public has been told. You want to scream. But crucially, you want action. Seventy two dead and still no arrests? How come?