Harrowing and heartbreaking yet fiercely essential, Dictating to the Estate is a powerful piece of documentary theatre at Maxilla Social Club, right next to Grenfell Tower
“Please can you inform us how the council intend to put this wrong to right”
You might think you know what you’re expecting with Dictating to the Estate, a documentary play about the events leading up to the Grenfell Tower fire in which 72 people lost their lives. But what emerges from Nathaniel McBride’s script, hosted at the Maxilla Social Club which lies in the shadow of the tower, is something quite astonishing. A catalogue of local government failures and frustrated community action stretching for years before the fire, and predicting that such a tragedy could occur.
Not a word has been written here. The play is entirely taken from Council meeting minutes and reports, email correspondence, blog posts and information from the Inquiry, and so speaks directly of the conflicting priorities, responsibility shirking and refusals to listen that accompanied the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s refurbishment of the tower and the dire consequences that followed, not just in terms of the fire but also in the damage it did to the relations between the residents and the council as the concerns of the former were consistently ignored.
By its nature, there are moments where the amount of detail here is dizzying. The sheer wealth of information is near-overwhelming but as anyone with any experience of local government bureaucracy will tell you, that’s what it is like trying to deal with them. Directors Lisa Goldman and Natasha Langridge do an expert job though in creating a flow to the material that guides us through the stages of this journey, from the intensely personal testimony of residents to the espousal of government policy to “kill off the health and safety culture” – a truly chilling cameo for David Cameron.
And as they multi-role through a cast of nearly 50 characters, there is expert work from the company of Tamara Camacho, Lucy Ellinson, Jon Foster, Nathan Ives-Moiba and Avin Shah. The excellent Foster acts almost as the keystone for the play as member of the Grenfell Action Group Edward Daffarn, increasingly motivated to community activism by the shoddy and increasingly hostile treatment from the TMO (Tenant Management Organisation), three letters that will chill the soul forever more. But from the long-limbed double-barrelled arrogance to the retreat behind cowardly verbiage, these character studies are expertly pitched.
And then, Dictating to the Estate smashes your heart to smithereens in its final moments, because how could it not. Loss of life and dereliction of duty on this scale is unconscionable on any level, never mind when it was as avoidable as has just been spelled out to us, particularly at this moment in the culture (who needs to sort social housing when we can piss about with the Red Arrows instead eh…). Camacho delivers a last piece of resident testimony with unimaginable grace and composure and as the lights dim and the names of the 72 appear, nothing as futile as applause seems appropriate – it is a truly heartbreaking, extraordinary, thought-provoking moment.
As we approach the fifth anniversary of the fire, they are forever in our hearts; the message of this play should forever be in our minds.