Verbatim theatre is the nearest dramatic equivalent of a film/TV documentary and I couldn’t help noticing that Grenfell, showing recently on Channel 4 and now on All 4, was badged as such. Both genres use real testimony arranged in such a way as to tell a story and reveal a set of truths. David Hare, himself no stranger to the technique, has said that “it does what journalism fails to do” in that through careful selection it aims to engage and explain rather than just report. While it doesn’t (if it’s doing things properly) seek to indoctrinate it does ask the audience to react and reflect calling into question its own assumptions and even prejudices. However, one cannot but conclude that Grenfell, Scenes From The Enquiry is a devastating critique of a system which put money before people and allowed a tragedy which claimed the life of 72 victims to take place. Broadcast on the fifth anniversary of the central event it is an object lesson in the power of verbatim theatre to contribute to the ongoing debate and keep such critical events in the public eye – as yet criminal proceedings have yet to be brought for anyone involved.
The play is a filmed record of the performances given at The Tabernacle in Notting Hill Gate (less than a mile from Grenfell itself) in autumn 2021. Every word spoken in it is taken from transcripts of the official enquiry which took place over a four year period, arranged and edited by Richard Norton-Taylor. Starting with a swift but devastating resume of the horrors which took place from Luke Bisby, Professor of Fire and Structures at Edinburgh University, the first part concentrates mostly on the response and experience of the fire brigade as exemplified by one of its members David Badillo. His personal quest to rescue 13 year old Stevie ends in tragedy and we are left in no doubt that he is still living with the consequences of his actions. This is perhaps the most uncomfortable part of the drama as Badillo breaks down and the enquiry has to be temporarily halted. It is perhaps unfortunate to have seemingly singled out this one individual.
From then on the catalogue of incompetence, prejudice and repeated attempts to save money start to reveal those really responsible and they are legion. On stage, the play’s subtitle was Value Engineering, a euphemistic expression used to conceal questionable decision making in an attempt to keep costs to a minimum. It is a phrase that is repeated often so it is somewhat strange that it has been removed from this this broadcast version’s title. Norton-Taylor’s edited version of events cleverly exposes the hypocrisy and blame shifting which pervaded the enquiry without stating it openly; neither, as would happen in a court case, are we given any summing up or direction about how to think. Rather the audience is left to form its own judgement – though surely there can only be one conclusion. The play is broadcast in two parts and the final minutes of each programme address (as one of the witnesses puts it) the “elephants in the room” of social deprivation, ingrained prejudice and social immobility. The fact is that the tragedy took place in one of the smallest and richest London boroughs but disproportionately affected people of colour, disability and low social class. Direct parallels are deliberately drawn with both the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd.
It is easy to forget that you are watching actors at work or that events are taking place on stage, so clinical is the approach. The company is led by Ron Cook in the key role of Richard Millett, Lead Counsel to the enquiry. There is, of course, a degree of crossover between actors and lawyers and Cook seems entirely at ease as he has his character wield a forensic scapel to get to the heart of the matter. He is ably supported by an eclectic ensemble who portray an ever more depressing set of witnesses who seem only to want to shift blame away from themselves and onto others. I can only imagine how harrowing it must have been to recreate these events on a nightly basis during the live run. This is definitely not an easy watch but it is a vital one.