Grenfell Inquiry play will expose 'cover-ups and incompetence'
- Credit: PA
The team behind plays based on the Stephen Lawrence and Bloody Sunday hearings are reconstructing the Grenfell Inquiry on stage.
Maida Vale director Nicolas Kent, and Muswell Hill journalist Richard Norton-Taylor's Value Engineering runs at The Tabernacle in Notting Hill next month, starring Mr Selfridge actor Ron Cook.
They hope to distil verbatim evidence heard by the inquiry into a drama capturing the cover-ups, discrimination, and incompetence which led to Britain's deadliest fire in a residential building since the Blitz.
Kent, whose similar dramas while artistic director of Kilburn's Tricycle Theatre were dubbed "tribunal plays", says it was clear within days of the June 2017 tragedy that there would be a public probe.
"With so many lives lost in a local authority building that was obvious," he said. "The question was how big the remit was."
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He rejected an early suggestion of talking to traumatised residents: "I felt that was the job of a journalist and didn't want to intrude on people's privacy, but when there was an inquiry, I wanted to do something to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Indeed, the drama includes none of the "rawly emotional" testimony from survivors and families of the 72 who perished, focusing instead on the lawyers, contractors, architects, fire safety experts, and local authority members.
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"It's a lot of middle-aged men and women giving evidence about their failure of responsibility to see that this building would be safe in a fire," said Kent, whose not-for-profit venture has been criticised for a lack of stakeholder involvement and diversity among cast and creators.
"I don't feel it's the business of the sort of theatre I do to re-rehearse the huge loss. The idea is not to rake over the terrible grief, that is there in the background and there can never be enough compassion for the people who went through that, it's to make sure that lessons are learned, to better understand the truth behind this avoidable tragedy, give an overview of how these terrible cock-ups happened, and hold to account the people who were in positions of power."
He believes the inquiry will lead to prosecutions and changes in government housing policy, and says the Inquiry has thrown up issues around austerity, which meant Chelsea and Westminster's understaffed building control department "didn't do its job properly"; government deregulation of building standards, which saw huge multi-nationals supplying cladding and insulation whose fire testing regimes "were rigged"; and a "lack of diligence" from the architect overseeing Grenfell's "disastrous refurbishment".
"It's corruption. There were things that shouldn't have been on that building that were highly inflammable. It's a terrible scandal and we the tax payers are now paying for the remedial works (on unsafe buildings) instead of the building industry who have been making profits of billions."
Having created plays such as The Colour of Justice on the McPherson report, and Bloody Sunday on The Saville Inquiry, Kent and Norton-Taylor are used to lengthy lead times. They usually wait until completion, but with this inquiry not set to close until late 2022, and the final phase dealing with regulations rather than accountability, they were "determined to do it now".
"I've been to hours of inquiry proceedings it's very dry, then suddenly gets dramatic. When you chose the people to concentrate on, hone down the pivotal moments, and give a strong narrative overview, it tends to be very moving and you learn a lot," said Kent.
Norton-Taylor, who has listened to much of the four year testimony remotely, didn't believe that staging legal proceedings would work but says "the plays have struck a chord and attracted people who otherwise wouldn't go to the theatre".
He promises "explosive revelations" in Value Engineering.
"We concentrated on the companies not because we wanted to diminish the role of the residents, but to reveal the incompetence and admission of fraud by those involved – an important part of the inquiry which may get lost when the more human evidence comes to the fore."
He was "astonished" at the company employees who confessed to lying under pressure from bosses, and admitted the "racism and classism, the network of chums, cost cutting and deregulation".
"You see the merry-go-round of buck passing, sidestepped warnings, the corrosive atmosphere as they plan the refurbishment, the patronising, hostile attitude that officials at Kensington and Chelsea – one of the richest local authorities in Britain – had towards the residents of a tower block they regarded as almost embarrassing, and whose warnings about fire safety and obstacles of evacuating the 24-story building were completely ignored.
"One lawyer called it a 'pandemic of incompetence', another referred to a 'chronic culture of neglect, indifference and discrimination'."
The former Guardian defence correspondent added: "Distilling is part of the journalist's craft. With Bloody Sunday we put 10 years into three hours – you can do these things. I've always thought of the plays as an extension of journalism. You get the background, context, and an explanation, so people know what happened and why."
Value Engineering runs at The Tabernacle from October 13 until November 13. 50 seats at each performance will go to local residents at £5. The Playground Theatre is running an education programme in schools and youth clubs around social justice and civic responsibility alongside, and there will be post show Q&As organised by Justice4Grenfell.