Grenfell review – so heartbreaking you’ll want to scream | Television
In 2021, the non-profit play Grenfell: Value Engineering – Scenes from the Grenfell Inquiry took place at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill, West London, then at the Birmingham Rep. It was a verbatim dramatization of the evidence from the Grenfell Tower inquest. A depiction of the Tabernacle is televised here in two parts, with the simplified title of Grenfell (Channel 4). Jon Snow presents it with a short and devastating explanation of why this piece exists. He remembers meeting 12-year-old Firdaws Hashim two months before the fire when he was presiding over a school 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 horrific tale of redistribution of blame and repeated denials of corporate guilt, I’m not sure hope is what we’re left with. It’s been five years since the Grenfell fire. It is worth watching this production remembering that to date no criminal charges have been filed. During the Jubilee celebrations, the community group Justice4Grenfell set up a festive street table in the shadow of the tower, inscribing the names of the victims and the words ’72 dead’ on the plaques. And still no arrests? How come?”
When the play was first announced, but before it was performed, there was an online debate about whether it was appropriate to “dramatize” the tragedy, and whether it would be a case of middle-class white luvvies appropriating the terrible events of this tragedy. night for their art. But it’s not so much dramatization as a carefully chosen selection of real evidence, designed to tell the story of what happened and suggest some of the many reasons why. These are, of course, poverty and race. Most of the victims were working-class people of color living in public housing in one of the country’s wealthiest regions.
The piece is very procedural. It’s a story told in acronyms, codes and timestamps. Lawyers refer to witness statements, memos, phone transcripts, CCTV, flowcharts and emails, and display them on screen. But this technical approach is not difficult to follow and gives an immersive feeling. The only reminders that this is a play, and not scenes from the investigation, are the occasional shots of an audience watching in rapt silence.
The first phase of the investigation began in May 2018 and ended in December of the same year. It aimed to provide a factual account of what happened and begins with accounts given by members of the fire department. An actor plays the first firefighter to enter the tower, as he describes the confusion of the night, the decisions he made and why. A control room officer speaks of ‘something entirely different from what had happened before’ and describes how long it took for the ‘stay put’ advisory to be changed to tell people to leave.
It’s heartbreaking from start to finish, though the reasons for this change and evolve. The evidence provided in the second phase of the investigation comes from the business side: the architects and contractors. A flowchart, explaining the various companies involved in the renovation of Grenfell which was completed just a year before the fire, is useful if only to keep track of the outrageous abdication of responsibility and shifting of responsibility that is taking place.
It’s a litany of damning indictments, and the success of this piece could be to raise awareness of the egregious failures of the many agencies involved in the renovation of the tower. Cladding was seen as an aesthetic choice, a way to make 1970s social housing “prettier”. The architectural firm that won the contract, Studio E, had no experience of high-rise residential buildings , and one of the architects admits to being “a bit green about process and technicality” in an email broadcast on the screen.
Each shifts responsibility to another department. Costs are reduced and money saved. There are no sprinklers fitted and it is claimed that the lining materials used were “inert and would not burn at all”, despite heavy evidence to the contrary. A resident who raises concerns about fire safety is dismissed as “a known troublemaker”. Again, these are verbatim accounts of the investigation itself. No dramatization is required, just editing that clarifies what was said to the audience. You want to scream. But above all, you want action. Seventy-two dead and still no arrests? How come?