Many of us remember that horrendous night in 2017. ‘Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors’ is a verbatim play about that terrible night that took 72 lives. The subtitle reveals that the residents depicted all got out. Through interviews, with some of the Grenfell survivors and material skulled from the inquiry Gillian Slovo has written a play based on verbatim account. (Main image: ash-hunter-grenfell-in-the-words-of-survivors-national-theatre-dorfman-theatre-photo-myah-jeffers)
We meet the 12 survivors who form the play’s central cast of characters performed by actors, saying words spoken by the people they characterized. The lights are up at the start of the play as the cast, out of character, introduce themselves and the residents they will play. Each cast member also doubles up as officials in the inquiry inserts. They encourage us to turn and greet each other. We are informed that there will be no images or sounds as the fire but if anything was too much for us, we could leave and were free to come back.
This is not the first play about Grenfell but unlike the previous plays Slovo does not use much from the inquiry transcripts. Instead, she focuses on the words of the survivors and goes to the very core of the destroyed community where families and lives were split asunder.
It is heart-breaking and angry-making listening to the outrageous policies that led to the disaster. Slovo, with directors Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike, give us devastating details of the survivors’ experiences of the fire. It is emotional, outright dreadful, and extremely riveting, listening to the alternating accounts of the survivors’ who had experienced the disaster first hand that night and the accounts of firefighters questioned at the inquest.
The audience sit on four sides surrounding the acting area and the cast sits amongst us when not on stage. The staging is simple, the setting is plain wood flooring and several boxes that look like document boxes. These are moved around, used to keep coats, papers, and other props, to sit or stand on as the play unfolds. There is death everywhere in the show, but there is no unnecessary dwelling on those who died. This play centres on those who lived.
It was soon clear that the corruption at the centre of the catastrophe was avoidable. The flames swept up the 23 floors of Grenfell because the people were let down by many. The list is long, contractors, the building managers, the council, local government, the cladding manufacturers, the Building Research Establishment, the attitudes of Regulators, research bodies and the government.
Families were unaided, even obstructed, and one witness suggests that racism was a suggested that local authority housing policy resulted in a sort of social cleansing with the diverse or deprived tenants unheeded in a super-rich postcode area. We hear from devoted husband Nick Burton, describes the deep fear of being separated from his wife as they were guided out the building – we are devastated when we hear that, she later became Grenfell’s 72nd casualty. Houda Echouafni is shaking as she shares pregnant Rabia Yahya’s ordeal leading her young children down flights of burning hot stairs projected onto the floor by clever lines of light.
The residents fondly remember a Grenfell where their lives were connected where neighbours became second family, sharing child-care. It was a real community and despite all the outside exploitation, inside, the tower block was a refuge, “Grenfell was different,”
From the beginning, we are told that everything we see has been approved by the survivors and with their words hanging, in the air, the play ends with a listing of the dead scrolled down a huge screen and a call to activism.
This play is well served by an amazing ensemble, moving brilliantly between their many different roles. They all deserve to be named. 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.
This tremendous piece of theatre is a masterpiece verbatim account of the Grenfell Tower fire and is profound and utterly overwhelming.
The play is the Dorfman theatre, National Theatre, London, until 26 August.
By Writer, Producer, Author, Director, Actor Anni Domingo Instagram