Grenfell Justice on Stage

Next year will mark the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, which led to the deaths of 72 people. A new play explores the aftermath of the tragedy – and the impunity of those responsible.

Of all the things I found unsettling and dismaying in Value Engineering: Scenes from the Grenfell Inquiry, it was the lack of bows at the end of the play that discomforted me. When the play finished (rather abruptly), the actors never returned to the stage for applause. It just went quiet. The stage went dark and no one came back.

After two hours and 40 minutes immersed in reconstructed scenes from the inquiry, it would have provided catharsis to see the actors as themselves, bowing and smiling and done with their pretence. That polite, bourgeois theatre convention signals time for us all to return to ‘real’ life. But there were no bows. The names of the 72 victims of the Grenfell fire were shown on a large screen suspended above the stage. And I silently shuffled out, disturbed and disgruntled and sad. I did not know when to clap.

A fire started in Flat 16 in Grenfell Tower during the night of 14 June 2017. The fire spread quickly and with fatal ferocity through all 24 floors of the tower, due to the highly flammable Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) rainscreen cladding panels applied to the exterior. It was a shocking and horrible fire, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea which is not usually known for anything shocking or horrible, and an inquiry was immediately launched into how and why such a thing could happen.

There were initial hearings in September 2017, then Phase 1 ran from June to December 2018, focused on the fire and the response to it. The Chairman’s report (4 volumes); an Executive Summary can be found at The Grenfell Tower Inquiry website.

Value Engineering: Scenes from the Grenfell Inquiry is a staged reconstruction of witnesses giving evidence during Phase 2, which is focused on finding who is responsible for the fire: who was behind the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower and what they did—or failed to do—that lead to this disaster.

Value Engineering is the third Tribunal play by Richard Norton-Taylor and Nicholas Kent. Norton-Taylor identifies himself as editor of these plays, and was formerly defence and security editor for the Guardian. Kent is director, and was formerly the director of the Tricycle Theatre (now known as the Kiln Theatre). They have previously staged The Colour of Justice: The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry and Bloody Sunday: Scenes from the Saville Inquiry. Their thing is to take transcripts from these inquiries, edit them into manageable scripts for performance, and then put them on stage with as little dramatic intervention as possible.

It may seem pointless, superfluous to make theatre out of material that is public record. And what value is there in a faithful, verbatim reconstruction for theatre if there aren’t any theatrical embellishments? Value Engineering is an unadorned, unedited, unsentimental overview of the inquiry, in a form that we attend with more empathy and sensitivity than we would apply to reading archives or watching recordings; it is an extremely rewarding way to learn more about the inquiry. There is a tacit agreement between audience and actor that we will sit and listen and not interrupt; in doing so we give the inquiry and the tragic event that led to it due reverence and respect.

A huge number of people appear in the play: the architects, the Tenants Management Organisation (TMO), fire engineers, contractors, cladding and insulation installers, borough council building control officers, firefighters, project managers, product managers and sales managers all feature as decision-makers who put Grenfell Tower and its residents into grave danger. A dozen actors do tremendous work to play all the roles, and it’s an upsettingly vast number of culpable people. An abundance of evidence is presented on three large screens above the stage, which is very helpful, as the information is very dense and the materials discussed, the companies involved and individuals referred to are hard to follow. Emails, statements, reports, and diagrams are used to pinpoint where a key witness failed to be honest or diligent. There is no need for stage effects or additional theatrics when verbatim scenes from the inquiry are as inherently dramatic as this:

Ron Cook as Richard Millet QC questions Polly Kemp as Claire Williams, Project Manager for Kensington and Chelsea TMO on why she sent a certain email while Grenfell Tower was still burning:

Millet: Here we see a list of matters and they are quite detailed. Turn to page 2 and we can see how this is signed off ‘Please advise if there is any missing information that you would like to see, I am still trawling through the directories.’ My first question is, what prompted you to send this email?

Williams: I believe that the morning after the fire, there were discussions obviously amongst the managers as to what information we would need to be providing.

Millet: You see, what’s missing from it is any suggestion of surprise or shock that the building was burning in the light of the assurance that you say Simon Lawrence gave both you and to David Gibson.

Claire Williams breaks down in tears.

It goes on like this, on stage and in the inquiry. It is uncomfortable viewing, as yet more contractors, sales managers and council officers come forward to sit shame-faced but unrepentant as their emails are read to back to them.

Richard Millet QC wearily notes at the opening of Phase 2 that at the beginning of Phase 1 he had ‘invited the core participants not to indulge in a merry-go-round of buck-passing. Regrettably, that invitation has not been accepted.’ And he reminds the panel (and the audience in the Tabernacle) that the inquiry is not a dress rehearsal for civil claims or criminal proceedings. The inquiry is for finding facts and making recommendations. Witnesses in this inquiry, as per the Saville Inquiry, are protected from self-incrimination and cannot be prosecuted as a result of their evidence. This is an undertaking by Suella Braverman, the Attorney-General, a kind of value engineering that ensures witnesses speak freely but at the cost of prosecutions.

The bereaved and survivors of the fire are seeking compensation in high court from the companies involved in the disastrous refurbishment. Criminal prosecution could still happen in a separate Metropolitan Police investigation. But these scenes from the inquiry don’t go there, and we do not get any ending, tragic or triumphant as the inquiry is ongoing and due to conclude in late 2022. Chekhov’s gun isn’t fired, the Furies never arrive, no one is exiled for their crimes.

Value Engineering: Scenes from the Grenfell Inquiry leaves us, bewildered, at exactly the same point as the inquiry in real life: when will these maliciously negligent players stop talking, receive punishment, and take their bows? When do we clap?

About the Author

Hazel Tsoi-Wiles is a former editor of Londonist, a Live Art Development Agency writer in training, a repeat attendee of the Royal Court Young People’s Theatre and later, the Royal Court Young Writer’s Programme, and a Royal Court Theatre BEA writing group alumna. She was also one of the inaugural Almasi league writers.