The Burning Tower, Grenfell Play is performed on the Ainsworth Way estate
PUBLISHED: 11:22 18 June 2019
As the second anniversary of the Grenfell fire passes, the revival of Helena Thompson’s interactive play is a timely plea for investment in social housing.
As the second anniversary of the Grenfell fire goes by, the revival of Helena Thompson's interactive play The Burning Tower is a timely plea for investment in social housing.
The Muswell Hill-raised ex Ham&High theatre critic has been running community inclusive theatre projects on a North Kensington housing estate for 15 years - less than a mile from Grenfell.
SPID (Social, Political, Innovative, Direct) was commissioned to make the work before the disaster on June 14, 2017, which claimed 72 lives.
It sprang from one of their programmes Living History, which involved young people interviewing residents on local estates including Grenfell, to dramatise the history of social housing.
"It was originally called Homes for Heroes and looked at the birth of social housing, the idea of making housing decent and affordable for people who had fought in the war. It aimed to share the lessons of history before it was too late," she says.
"Then Grenfell happened and that became the crisis and climax of the play which is about a couple of kids asking you to come to this estate to share their living history experience."
Audiences are handed cupcakes, asked to write notes, hear a soundscape of resident's voices and the rollcall of Grenfell victims.
Blackouts underscore the impact of underinvestment as it emerges that one of the girls is a Grenfell survivor experiencing PTSD.
"We work with people who lost friends in the fire and characters are inspired by them," says Thompson.
"It makes the case for investment in social housing and valuing the community spirit at the heart of these buldings, but there is also catharsis. We watch someone having a panic attack reliving the night, to show that it's ok to feel that way and the community is there in solidarity."
SPID started off squatting the Kensal House estate community rooms in 2003 and is now £1.9million towards a £2.4m refurbishment.
"We were asked to move in by residents because the place was run down and neglected, our approach was to develop this high quality community theatre that engages people with each other."
That meant they were in a "unique" position of seeing Grenfell coming.
Rather than blaming fire protocols or cladding for the deaths, The Burning Tower implies it was not listening to tenants that led to disaster.
"Our insight from sharing the same Landlord with Grenfell working with the K&C tenants management organisation, now the subject of criminal enquiry, meant we knew about neglect and disempowerment for people before and after Grenfell and how they didn't listen to residents' concerns.
"There was not proper communication between the housing team and the people who lived in Grenfell, the implications are far reaching for estates. It's a system that needs to be checked." SPID has supported those in the area on that night, seen at first hand how they experienced PTSD and helped with advocacy "to get local residents on TV or in the papers to get the issue heard outside the area."
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Advocacy and empowerment are key messages of Thompson's play.
"Advocacy is crucial, we need to call for a package of change, to empower people to step up and make the case to refurbish this space that has been neglected.
The play is hopeful, optmisitic but never afraid to look these problems in the eye."
Scratch performances on the current tour are performed by social housing tenants alongside professional actors, in community spaces on three estates - so that the importance of preserving those spaces resonates.
The irony is not lost that some are due for demolition or at risk of being bulldozed.
"The play tries to spotlight that managed decline is leading to estates being neglected and valuable historic buildings being torn down.
The message is that social housing is sacred and valuable, it's designed with people in its DNA, the people who live there love the estates, it connects them to each other and their history and shared space.
They should be invested in, that's the dignified response to human need."
Two years after Grenfell, she says it's harder for the North Kensington community.
"Things are very bad. People are angrier and the sense of injustice is stronger, people are not housed, and there is a real danger that those victims will never move on and it will damange their lives and their children's lives forever."
"There are people who exploit this issue and on the anniversary the vultures come in, we are careful not to trigger traumatic memories. Our main focus is that Grenfell is not forgotten."
At SPID people from different backgrounds come together - residents and non residents - to make sure that doesn't happen.
"We let the resident's voices sing, but hone them. When you are a victim, people don't listen, and that is the role of art in advocacy, of listening where people have failed to listen."
But perhaps The Burning Tower's most powerful message is for audiences to feel complicit in the issue.
"Yes we are all connected and we are all responsible," says Thompson.
The Burning Tower is on June 20th, 8pm, Residents' hall, Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate, 52 Boundary Rd, NW8.
June 22, 8pm, Kensal House community rooms, Kensal House estate, Ladbroke Grove, W10.
Tickets £10 tickets for the Grenfell Foundation can be bought from bac.org.uk.