Don’t be deceived by the buttoned up, well-spoken men in suits in this verbatim reconstruction of the Grenfell Inquiry. This is a powerfully effective evening, with an undercurrent of shock and despair at its heart. Nicholas Kent and Richard Norton-Taylor reproduce word for word testimonies of those who gave evidence to explore the question of how the hell the fire, which killed 72 people in 2017, was ever able to happen. What emerges is a damning portrait of blasé incompetency and mundane buck-passing, all driven by the goal to save money on the tower’s refurbishment – the so-called ‘Value Engineering’ of the play’s title.
The simple, bureaucratic set – all lecterns and PowerPoint presentations – is curiously complemented by its setting, Notting Hill’s Tabernacle Theatre. This strange and beautiful room makes us feel like we’re at a town hall meeting; the audience responds to what we hear with shaking heads, hollow laughter, the occasional outraged stir in a seat. The concept of the production sounds dry, and it can occasionally get a little technical, but it feels like a collective bearing of witness – one of theatre’s most powerful functions, more poignant after so long without it.
It’s in the small details that this excellent cast capture the different ways that witnesses are awed by the scale of the event, or remain in denial about it. A fire brigade control officer looks up and says “Ummm” every time she’s asked a question. A firefighter, haunted by the front door he didn’t knock on, breaks down into tears. A young, out of his depth manager at the cladding company that fitted the building leans forward and squints at his own words on a screen as they are presented back to him.
The production is so slick, so consummately performed, that I occasionally found myself jolted, thinking, “but this is real. It happened.” You might think it a bit suspect that two white men have staged a play about Grenfell, where the action is driven by white lawyers (Ron Cook, as Richard Millett QC, commands the evening). Are Kent and Norton-Taylor making a point — that of course this would be the medium that Grenfell residents, who tried and failed to have their voices heard before the fire, should finally be listened to? I’m not sure. But they don’t allow us to look away from one of the most shameful episodes in our recent history. Every politician needs to buy a ticket.
Tabernacle Theatre, until 13 Nov; grenfellvalueengineering.comInternet Explorer Channel Network