I still remember the horror I felt when I saw for myself the remains of the Grenfell Tower as I was driving through west London a couple of weeks after the fire. It was an appalling, brutal sight, and I found it so overwhelming that I immediately burst into tears. So, it was fitting that I – unintentionally – took that same route to the performance of Grenfell – System Failure last night, as the recollection helped set my mindset for the evening ahead.
As the title suggests, the premise here is a snapshot into the evidence and conclusions from the first phase of the Grenfell inquiry. Richard Norton-Taylor, together with Nicholas Kent, have selected testimony from a range of people who were either affected by the tragedy or were part of the chain of events that led to it. The stage is set as any formal inquiry and I appreciated the small attention to detail – right down to the clear glass water bottles that are placed on tables, although that’s perhaps more indicative of my own experience of parliamentary and government proceedings.
It’s very hard to judge this by normal ‘night at the theatre’ standards. The subject matter is horrifying and has been deftly knitted together to highlight the systematic failures that led to the tragedy, the circular finger pointing from those with responsibility and the absolutely heart-breaking trauma and sadness that still plagues survivors and the bereaved. There are strong performances here, no doubt about that, but rather than applaud at the interval the audience sat, dumbfounded and almost paralysed by the weight of what we’d just heard. It’s eye-opening and educational – such respect is paid to victims and survivors that there’s no element of entertaining morbid curiosity here. I found it an incredibly tough watch and it wouldn’t be right to say that I enjoyed it, but it’s powerful and poignant and I’m glad that I’ve seen it. I’ve always believed in the importance of bearing witness to help us understand, grow and ultimately improve, and last night to an extent felt like that.
There is so much real emotion here that I’d challenge anyone not to move through a full kaleidoscope of feelings. There’s so much to be sad about, and so many reasons to be angry, but there are also so many pockets of love; examples of how the community came together to hold each other, of people helping and of bravery beyond words. It’s truly, truly moving and while I once again sat and cried in my car in west London, it was over a maelstrom of fury and hope and admiration. Not an easy watch but a rewarding one – kudos to writers, cast and crew for tackling such an important story in a powerful but sensitive way.
Playing until 25th February before moving to The Tabernacle (27th February – 12th March) then finally visiting Marylebone Theatre from the 14th – 26th March. https://grenfellsystemfailure.com/tickets
Reviewer: Zoё Meeres
Reviewed: 23rd February 2023
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★