Powerful and punishing, Grenfell – in the words of survivors makes for an astonishing evening at the National Theatre
“It was like hell, you know what I mean?”
When it comes to plays about the Grenfell tragedy (atrocity?), then the bar was set extremely high with last year’s Dictating to the Estate, the most affecting piece of theatre I saw all year long which took place in the shadow of the tower itself. Richard Norton-Taylor also produced two plays on the subject and now it is the turn of Gillian Slovo to do the same, and all have chosen the mode of verbatim theatre, for evidently there’s little need to dramatise that which still stings with such unresolved feeling.
So Grenfell – in the words of survivors does what it says on the tin, it collects the words of those who survived or were bereaved by the fire that engulfed the North Kensington towerblock and killed more than 70. And it tells their stories with elegance and economy, begun with a careful step-by-step through the ins-and-outs of documentary theatre, of what is to come, what will and won’t be included, guiding us gently towards the traumatic event that is to and offering the chance to duck out if overwhelmed.
And it does become overwhelming. Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike’s choice to run for a full three hours allows time and space for voices to be heard, before the interval we’re introduced to them on the day before the fire, a collection of ordinary lives soon to be shattered by the extraordinary events of the 14th June. The account of the fire itself is simply extraordinary too, incorporating a measure of details you hope never to have to hear or think about. And yet we must, for these stories haven’t yet finished.
Not in terms of the production, for there’s a third act of a starkly effective film encouraging our own action. And not in terms of the people themselves, as the official inquiry won’t be published until 2024 with scant hope of any kind of justice for those criminally responsible. There’s no escaping how tough this is to watch, I wept on the way home almost as much as I downright sobbed for 30 minutes on the 36 bus last year. But I also felt stirred in a way that is too rare in our theatres, it’s a genuine call to action.