Grenfell: System Failure has started its run in London, and here is a Reviews Round-up of the production from London theatre critics.
The follow-up play to the acclaimed Grenfell: Value Engineering, this new verbatim play is touring three West London venues: The Playground Theatre (18 February – 25 February), The Tabernacle (27 February – 12 March) and Marylebone Theatre (14 March – 26 March), bringing the production closer to the communities affected by the tragedy than previously possible.
This is the ninth verbatim play by Nicolas Kent, former director of the Kiln Theatre, and Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian’s former defence and security editor, including Grenfell: Value Engineering.
Grenfell: System Failure stars Olivier-nominee Ron Cook (Andor, Inside Number. 9, Mr Selfridge, The Witcher, Faith Healer and Girl from the North Country) reprising his role as Lead Counsel to the Inquiry, Richard Millett QC. Also returning are Derek Elroy (Leslie Thomas QC), Sally Giles (Kate Grange QC), David Michaels (Andy Roe/Nick Hurd),and Thomas Wheatley (Sir Martin Moore-Bick).
Joining them are Nicholas Chambers (Adrian Pargeter), Sophie Duval (Sarah Colwell), Tanveer Ghani (Imran Khan QC), Shahzad Ali (Hisam Chouciar), Madeleine Bowyer (Deborah French) and Howard Crossley (Eric Pickles). Further casting will be announced in due course.
A piece of documentary theatre, based entirely on the words of those involved in the final phase of the Inquiry (which ended in November 2022), Grenfell: System Failure interrogates why the testing regime failed to warn of the danger of installing inflammable materials, why manufacturers promoted such products with no regard to safety, why government regulations ignored the dangers and were not updated, and why politicians failed to ensure proper oversight. Through the testimonies of bereaved residents, it explores how they were failed by the London Fire Brigade on the night and abandoned by the local authority in the chaos of the fire’s aftermath.
Grenfell: System Failure has set design by Miki Jablkowska and Matt Eagland, lighting design by Matt Eagland,sound & video design by Andy Graham, costume design by Carly Brownbridge, casting by Amy Ball CDG with community liaison from Suresh Grover, and production photography by Beresford Hodge.
"The banality of corporate evil"
"Grenfell: System Failure is the latest in a series of political plays that are nothing less than a seismograph of our times. Nicolas Kent, former director of the Tricycle Theatre (now called the Kiln) and Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian’s former defence and security editor, have once more demonstrated how verbatim theatre is a powerful tool for scrutinising the forces that shake our world."
"For this staging, which starts at the Playground Theatre, in walking distance of the derelict Grenfell Tower, we sit in hushed silence as the actors in front of us quietly expose the banality of corporate evil."
"... what’s most striking here is the refusal to conform to any dramatic structure or dynamic. The primal, unspeakable tragedy has happened; what we’re witnessing now is the neat filleting of human existence, stripped of sensation so that we feel the full punch of the facts."
"When it ended no one could speak or clap for what felt like a couple of minutes. Once more it was the bare facts that held sway as we sat contemplating a screen displaying the names of the dead."
"Sobering unpicking of a tragedy"
"Writer Richard Norton-Taylor and director Nicolas Kent’s almost anti-theatrical play uses residents’ testimonies and gives the bereaved a much-needed voice"
"Staged a few minutes away from Grenfell Tower, this play drawn from the inquiry into the 2017 inferno that took 72 lives has audience members who experienced the disaster firsthand and have seen accountability avoided for causes and responses. “They’ve got away with it,” a survivor sitting close to me says in the interval."
"Ron Cook, a terrier of an actor, gets his teeth into squirming and stonewalling witnesses, quoting damning group chats (“all we do is lie in here”) or insisting that “science was secretly perverted for financial gain”. Regulators, research bodies, government – all swerve apology or responsibility until pressed."
"Its setting is bland wood and grey flooring, its language is sober. Rare striking phrases resound: a barrister declaring that lives “cannot be sacrificed at the altar of austerity” or a fire chief lamenting “an article of public shame”."
"Urgently highlights structural shortcomings of the modern British state"
"This verbatim recreation of the inquiry into the Grenfell disaster has a political pertinence that transcends the realm of entertainment"
"A sequel to their other play on the Inquiry, Value Engineering, System Failure is a two-hour showcase of the bureaucratic inertia, chronic under-funding and ministerial arrogance that led to the loss of 72 lives in 2017."
"As in Value Engineering, there are no sound effects nor music, and designers Miki Jablkowska and Matt Eagland’s have made an exact recreation of the parliamentary inquiry room... The pains taken to achieve this exact replica pay off. So immersive is the production, and so captivating are the performances, that you quite easily forget that this is a play at all. Theatrical enhancement would also, in any case, be unnecessary: the snippets that Norton-Taylor has painstakingly drawn out – including Kingspan employees laughing at their flammable insulation, building inspectors admitting they buried fire-safety studies, and a recognisably balding and rotund Eric Pickles (Howard Crossley) claiming he has more important places to be – are so shocking, that extra dramatisation would be superfluous."
"At times I felt there could have been a touch more of this humanity sprinkled through the narrative, as incriminating statements of official after official begin to blur into each other somewhat. But you cannot fault the diligence and public duty that are the driving forces behind this play"
"This second verbatim dramatisation of the Grenfell Inquiry is a grimly one-note symphony of establishment buck passing"
"‘Grenfell: System Failure’ continues in this vein, examining the endless bureaucratic buck-passing that left so many overlooked, poor and immigrant people at risk of death from the very fabric of their homes."
"The evidence is peppered with ‘I don’t recalls’ and ‘institutional failures’. Responsibility climbs up the chain as inexorably as the flames swept up the 23 floors of Grenfell: the contractors, the building managers, the council, local government, the cladding manufacturers, the Building Research Establishment and even the former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles."
"Where ‘Value Engineering’ invoked righteous anger, ‘System Failure’ is just relentlessly depressing, portraying a society where no one takes pride in what they do and where government at the highest level wants to do less and less under the guise of giving people more ‘freedom’ so it can avoid being blamed for anything. Some fine performances – especially from Ron Cook and Thomas Wheately – do stand out, but they can’t do much with the grim pall that this work casts."
"Scenes from the Inquiry review: a show that fills you with rage"
"This quietly devastating show feels real, and its unvarnished testimony is horrifically compelling"
"Director Nicolas Kent and adapter Richard Norton-Taylor attribute the 72 deaths in the 2017 conflagration to sharp practice by those who refurbished the building, and official incompetence: but also to the paring back of safety controls and defunding of the emergency services. It’s an evening to fill you with cold rage."
"It feels real, and the unvarnished testimony is horrifically compelling."
"... this quietly devastating show hits in the way that news reports simply can’t and in a way that the Inquiry’s report, due out later this year, probably won’t. Playing in three London theatres, two of them close to the burned-out tower, it’s a devastating homage to those who died and a plea for eventual justice. To steal a line from Death of a Salesman: attention must be paid."
"Stately, subdued power"
"Understated and affecting interrogation of the causes of the 2017 fire"
"Kent’s minimal staging lets the words speak for themselves. There is nothing ostentatious here, no distractions from the stark picture presented to us. The piece has a stately, subdued power, treating its subject with the gravity it self-evidently deserves, without feeling exploitative."
"Reprising his role as QC Richard Millett, Ron Cook is a steady, hyper-focused presence, calmly presenting the facts and scrutinising his witnesses with poised precision. The most dramatic moments come during his questioning of former secretary of state for Communities Eric Pickles. Howard Crossley’s Pickles is pompous and evasive, wobbling between puffing up his own ego and trotting out banalities about taking responsibility while refuting any suggestion that he, personally, could have done anything to avert the tragedy."
"Richard Norton-Taylor and Nicolas Kent’s second Grenfell drama is a shocking dissection of negligence"
"Staging actual trials and tribunals, using words from transcripts, this least theatrical of theatre-making can discomfort in multiple ways: performances are so transparent it can be hard to know if an actor is struggling for breath or stumbling over forgotten words."
"Staged minutes away from the tower, it is an uncompromising evening"
"Much of the two and a half hours is made up of technical evidence about cladding and insulation. The detail mounts, numbingly: the dryness makes survivors’ accounts the more lacerating."
"Raw, uncompromising, state-of-the-nation theatre"
"Staged in the Playground Theatre, in the shadow of Grenfell, on a replica of the shabby Inquiry room, the obscene failures which lead to this preventable tragedy are exposed with forensic clarity."