Browse reviews

FringeReview UK 2023

Grenfell: in the words of survivors

National Theatre, London

Genre: Contemporary, Political, Theatre, Verbatim Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Dorfman


Low Down

Grenfell isn’t quite like any verbatim theatre, and the result’s groundbreaking. If the Dorfman could stage at least one such play a year, verbatim or imaginative, then that’s one legacy of Rufus Norris’ tenure that mustn’t be lost. Outstanding.

 Directed by Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike, Set and Costume Designer Georgia Lowe, Lighting Designer Azusa Ono, Sound Designer Donato Wharton, Composer Benjamin Kwasi Burrell, Video Designer Akhila Krishnan, Movement Director Chi-San Howard

Casting Chandra Ruegg and Alistair Coomer CDG, Voice and Dialect Coach Hazel Holder, Wellbeing Practitioner Ashley Miller, Dramatherapist Patricia Ojehonmon.

Musicians: Ruth Elder (Violin), Nicola Hicks (Viola), Jessamy Holder (Baritone Saxophone), Zara Hudon-Kozdoj (Cello), Charlie Pyne (Double Bass), Nick Moss (Bass Clarinet), Guy Passey (Tenor Saxophone).

Till August 26th


Love and rage. There’s a stark divide in Gillian Slovo’s verbatim Grenfell: in the words of survivors opening at the NT Dorfman till August 26th. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike with equal starkness, warmth and witness blossom in actions at the end. Indeed at the beginning we’re encouraged to introduce ourselves; cast members start by announcing we can leave and return if overwhelmed.

Grenfell isn’t quite like any verbatim theatre, and the result’s groundbreaking. Slovo and the team actively collaborate with survivors, nine of whom – appearing in a short film at the end – are portrayed by the cast here, who also multirole, taking on participants in the Enquiry from 2018 onwards; and whose report won’t emerge till 2024. At best.

It lasts three hours, though there’s a flexible coda. After a vivid first act, ominously full of the lives led before June 14th, the longer second almost hopscotches far more rapidly as tension mounts through witnesses’ ordeals, and rescue. It’s where Azusa Ono’s lighting becomes striking, functional and appallingly evocative in spotlighting, striping, with lozenges and pitches of dark. After a pause the video of witnesses is screened, where an actor sits briefly on a bench with the man he portrays: actors’ likenesses to those they represent are often uncanny.

Strikingly, we hear from the living, not the dead. Which might have been too horrible, certainly transgressive. But the overall transcendence of Slovo’s work, patterned as it is and skilfully paced, is to excoriate with witness and humanity. The eloquence of these survivors is like paint-stripping a malign state’s veneer.

Akhila Krishnan’s video monitors above flick into David Cameron’s literal bonfire of red-tape – something Boris Johnson specifically targeted with fire-regulations in 2009. Mainly though, they’re deployed in the inquiry, and to designate key times from 00.54 am agonisingly ticking off the fire’s advance and plight of those trapped and escaping.

Nothing detracts from this; occasional silence seeps in. Donato Wharton’s sound is either for documentary video or Benjamin Kwasi Burrell’s elegiac, recorded composition. And no depictions of fire, smoke, or sound, except in 999 recordings. Georgia Lowe’s set consists essentially of ten cardboard boxes variously employed as seats, illustrations of the tower, boxed court documents, and finally what you feel they must be.

There’s expected enquiry details. Actors turn into numerous contractors and others, squirming verbatim, oscillating more frantically through Act Two alongside confusing re-numberings, known cladding issues, deliberate omissions: criminal acts in themselves.

But there’s appalling facts where you don’t expect them: Hanan Wahabi (Sarah Slimani) recounts how her uncle was essentially told to shut up, whilst “I listened to other nine-nine-nine calls… and the same operator who got him {neighour} and his family out… were different. My brother had an accent, the other man didn’t.”

Slovo selects a harrowing internal conversation – between two trapped families. Slimani recounts Hanan’s pleading with her brother’s family to leave in a series of calls, against official advice that apparently Jacob Rees-Mogg would have seen through because of his biological superiority. It was called trust.

Slimani’s quietly ferocious performance, poised against her previous day, is a savaging of understatement. Where for instance social worker Edward ‘Ed’ Daffern (Michael Shaeffer, wiry, wary, inconveniently au fait) takes us right through all the residents’ warnings, meetings with the council, and blog he was involved with.

After being told by the council they hadn’t a voice: ”Last time I checked this was the UK… We weren’t prophets (of the fire)… It was a prediction rather than a prophecy.” And the use of riot police to quell an imagined riot, instead of more help. Ed is told to “go home”.

Ed goes on with others – including Labour councillor Judith Blakeman (Jackie Clune, a withering seethe) to articulate a vision of how Grenfell is on prime land, to be removed, effectively ethnically cleansed from Kensington. You might say the fire was a result for those forces. ”I have no ability to reconcile with the perpetrators” Ed concludes. They’re elsewhere called “murderers”.

Maher Khoudar (Gaz Choudhry) laconically relates an epic: of how one polio-disabled man sent his family ahead, struggled down by himself (Choudhry all the time on crutches, unflinchingly observed)’ and offered aid only on his exit. “Now you want to help me?” But he analyses the trauma, why he and his wife no longer celebrate their wedding anniversary.

How Rabia Yahya (Houda Echouafini) and her children were even visited by firemen, told to stay put, and their eventual decision beggars belief, but it’s another narrative more amplified because you know something of her life. Echouafini inhabits an appalled stillness, sculpted wraith-like by the light, almost as if she wouldn’t make it.  Antiphonally Rabia’s husband Bellal El-Guenuni (Rachid Sabitri) is on the outside, frantically calling with dead batteries, lost signals.

Nick Burton (Ash Hunter) with a far older partner is suddenly faced with dilemmas all the way, including an epilogue. Whilst science-loving,  rule-compliant Tigo Alves (Keaton Guimaraes-Tolley) mixes cheery uplifting wonder till confronted by his rule-challenging father. Tigo, a young man aspiring to a different world in Guimaraes-Tolley’s hands, eventually speculates the temperature of flames told by colour. Guimaraes-Tolley’s frequently deployed as a witness.

Natasha Elcock (Pearl Mackie) relates how by degrees she’s emmeshed in staying put. In Mackie’s hands Natasha emerges as naturally positive, put under unimaginable strains as description of the black smoke – a universal – seems to make leaving impossible. Lisa Zahra, sometimes an alternate, deserves mention. Small wonder dramatherapy and other staff are involved.

There’s oddly almost comic relief in the next-to-last to be rescued, hotelier Antonio Roncolato (Joe Alessi, engaging, eliciting rare laughter) recounting his sang-froid, his nephew’s panic and finally despite a nonchalant delivery – he thinks everyone else is worse off – recalls how the firemen he turned to thank vanished back into the building, past 6.05 am. Then turns this on its head. “It was like hell, you know what I mean?”

The dignity, solidarity indeed love shown here is almost overwhelming: a humane rebuke to the inhumane, to what can only be described as the forces of darkness against which these extraordinary ‘ordinary’ people have reluctantly pitted themselves. The feeling’s there in two final moments the audience is invited to.

As Karim Mussihly – in the film, not portrayed in the play – puts it. “The system isn’t broken. The system was built specifically to keep us where we are and them where they are.”  London’s burning as a result. And survivors moved out. Almost exactly a year ago Francesca Martinez’ All Of Us, tackling disabilism was premiered here. If the Dorfman could stage at least one such play a year, verbatim or imaginative, then that’s one legacy of Rufus Norris’ tenure that mustn’t be lost. Outstanding.