A reviews round-up for new verbatim play Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors at the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre in London.
This collaborative project with the west London community affected by the Grenfell Tower fire, which in 2017 killed 72 people, is based on accounts from survivors and those who lost loved ones.
Written by novelist and playwright Gillian Slovo (Another World: Losing our Children to Islamic State), and directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) and Anthony Simpson-Pike, the cast includes Joseph Alessi, Gaz Choudhry, Jackie Clune, Houda Echouafni, Keaton Guimarães-Tolley, Ash Hunter, Pearl Mackie, Rachid Sabitri, Michael Shaeffer, Sarah Slimani, Nahel Tzegai and Lisa Zahra.
The play is told in three parts: the events leading up to the fire, the night of the catastrophe, and a filmed final section in which survivors and bereaved individuals discuss their ongoing campaign for justice.
The creative team includes Georgia Lowe (set and costume design), Azusa Ono (lighting design), Donato Wharton (sound design), Akhila Krishnan (video design), Benjamin Kwasi Burrell (composer), Chi-San Howard (movement director), Chandra Ruegg and Alastair Coomer CDG (casting directors), Hazel Holder (voice and dialect coach), and Aaliyah McKay (staff director).
Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors is playing at the National Theatre to 26 August 2023.
"A masterpiece of forensic fury"
"Piling up devastating detail, this play with a remarkable cast shockingly lays bare the abject failures behind this disaster"
"... Slovo – with directors Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike – piles up devastating detail from the verbatim survivor accounts, public inquiry transcripts and TV interviews."
"The central charge is that the conflagration at Grenfell Tower started with sparks from a promised bonfire of regulation and red-tape by David Cameron. Tory ministers failed to heed a coroner’s warning after an earlier block blaze killed six. Cladding materials that failed safety tests (one flare-up almost torching the laboratory) were banned elsewhere but allowed in the light-touch UK."
"Theatre historians may be bemused that Lloyd could have directed Mamma Mia! (stage and screen) and also co-directed this. Both the celebratory and accusatory shows, though, show impeccable control of space and structure to engage emotion. Georgia Lowe’s spare design employs 10 cardboard legal boxes that serve, across three gripping hours, as chairs or lecterns, until their real meaning is shockingly revealed."
"Gillian Slovo’s new verbatim play about the 2017 tragedy is overpowering theatre that doubles as activism"
"Here is the sense in which Slovo’s play is new and important. It is not only that she uses the words of survivors; it’s that they are her collaborators. They were invited to read transcripts, take part in the film that ends the show, be their own editors. The result is an inquiry of the best sort – the most humane kind – on stage."
"It is an engulfing experience, directed with ambitious simplicity by Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike. At just over three hours, it makes space for everyone to be heard, which feels generous and right."
"It is great that the National Theatre is staging this – and that it is also involved in a long-term collaborative project with the west London community."
"This tour de force verbatim account of the Grenfell Tower fire is deeply humane and horribly gripping"
"I’m sometimes cynical of stuff like this: the idea that maybe there’s a well-meaning desire to ‘respond’ to a tragedy that feels more like a show of solidarity than meaningful art. But for me Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike’s co-production really, really worked."
"Is it vulgar or disrespectful to acknowledge that in part ‘Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors’ is good because it’s entertaining? I think it’s justified"
"If it wasn’t my job to see it, I’m not sure I’d feel entirely comfortable seeing a show on the subject, like it was misery tourism or something. But I’d have been wrong. Whether it enacts change or not, it is a tremendous piece of theatre as testimony, and the more people that see it – the more space it takes up – the better."
"Moving, heartfelt and important"
"The ensemble cast performs with a quietly furious intensity"
"This powerful piece of verbatim theatre about the tower block fire that killed 72 people in 2017 demands empathy, not sympathy, from its audience."
"... it’s a sprawling work with an awkward ending. But it reminds us that this was an outrage caused by deliberate policies in the rich heart of our city rather than some random, distant tragedy. We shouldn’t just remember Grenfell: we should feel it."
"Deregulation, cost-cutting and commercial chicanery made the atrocity not just likely but almost inevitable. But Slovo suggests these practices are embedded in the society we’ve built: we are all to blame."
"The ensemble cast performs with a quietly furious intensity, and the production is stylistically economical"
"... the ending, involving screened interviews with the people we’ve just seen played by actors, partly undermines the point of making a play. A final moment of communion and togetherness feels organised rather than organic, but it’s still very moving."
"a powerful production that gives the residents a voice"
"This new piece of verbatim theatre has its excellent cast playing former residents, its script taken almost entirely from their testimonies"
"What comes across strongly is that the residents, each with their own charm, personality, back-story and initial affection for the building, were viewed before, during and after the event as second-class citizens, their ethnicity and financial status (no matter how hard-working) held against them."
"The cast deserve the highest praise, but mention should be made of Pearl Mackie as Natasha Elcock, who recounts her hair-raising escape in infernal darkness, and the amputee Gaz Choudhry making his debut as disabled resident Maher Khoudair, stranded on the ninth floor."
"Breathes fresh injustice into the horrors"
"This devastating verbatim play reminds us: simply remembering the dead is not enough"
"Gillian Slovo’s diligent play, performed by actors standing mostly in place, replays the tragedy using the verbatim thoughts of the residents who lived it"
"Anthony Simpson-Pike and Phyllida Lloyd’s production is staged sparsely, but is a fuse waiting to blow. By sewing together TV interviews with the likes of David Cameron, public inquiry transcripts and the residents’ own recollections, it becomes a play of fatal details"
"Verbatim theatre can raise some ethical questions: the playwright’s own personal agenda is always likely to impact how interviewees are represented... But this production treats the residents of Grenfell with compassion. Their personalities glisten in each of their retellings – from within the ignited tower, hotel manager Antonio Roncolato even stops to call his teammates to let them know he won’t be coming into work."
"Visceral insight into a human tragedy"
"... the performances are impassioned, and by giving extra weight to those who experienced the terrifying events of June 2017, Slovo’s script — conscientiously directed by Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike — provides more insights into what the disaster entailed at the most visceral level."
"Even so, it’s a long evening, and at the close Slovo gives in to the temptation to evangelise in a J’Accuse, using videotaped testimony from the residents. While it’s touching to see the actor Ash Hunter share a moment with Nick Burton, one of the people he portrays, I’m not sure it was a good idea to turn the sequence into a mini political rally."
"Clutches at the throat and heart"
"Powerful verbatim drama blends terrifying personal testimony and political rage"
"Now, journalist and novelist Gillian Slovo’s new play focuses on the survivors’ stories. It would benefit, in dramatic terms, from a tighter edit and a better defined narrative arc. But it is a powerful and necessary polemic that is harrowing to witness. And Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike’s carefully paced, uncluttered production intensifies to an almost overwhelming immediacy."
"Alongside the verbatim material, there’s a great deal of context in the first half of Slovo’s play – rather too much of it delivered by the actors in straightforward recitation; nor are the Inquiry scenes imbued with quite enough texture. But as Azusa Ono’s lighting dims, picking out individuals in shrinking shafts or leading them down murky, echoing stairwells, each terrifying step picked out in a thread of illumination, the piece becomes a conduit for the voices of those who experienced the unthinkable."