There are several ways to bring an audience to a seething rage. You can tear up the stage, howl your message into the night, hit them hard with no-holds-barred depictions of injustice. Or you can pin them to their seats with facts: incontrovertible, damning facts, quiet in their delivery, harrowing in their cumulative impact.
That is the route taken by Nicolas Kent and Richard Norton-Taylor in Value Engineering: Scenes from the Grenfell Inquiry. Condensed, verbatim, from the ongoing public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017, in which 72 people lost their lives, this is a sober, unostentatious piece of theatre. It is devastating not in its style, but in the endemic and catastrophic carelessness and incompetence it lays bare.
We hear from multiple executives: the architect (Studio E), the building contractor (Rydon), a council building control officer, the cladding firm (Harley Curtain Wall) and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation. Forensically examined by Richard Millett QC (Ron Cook), they disclose the trail of cost-cutting, buck-passing, shoulder shrugging and inexperience that led to the fitting of the multistorey residential high-rise with inadequate, inflammable cladding. It stacks up to a bureaucratic system that, purposely or not, cares little for the human impact of its inadequacy.
The title Value Engineering is taken from the practice of trying to achieve the same results at lower cost. In the case of Grenfell Tower, the cheaper panels were combustible and the installation failed essential measures to prevent fire spread. Warnings from residents about safety went unheeded. We sit, in mute horror, looking at the images and timeline that demonstrate how the fire used the cladding to climb the entire height of the 24-floor building in under 30 minutes.
There has been criticism that the play focuses on the professionals — mostly white men — not the victims. But that becomes critical. This is a piece that seeks accountability and responsibility — rare commodities in so much public discourse today. And we feel the presence of the victims at every turn: in every lost set of notes, chummy email, slack response to concerns, every assumption that safety is someone else’s job.
Staged not far from the tower, this is theatre not as entertainment but as vital, galvanising, public witness-bearing. The words of two barristers representing the bereaved ring out. Michael Mansfield QC (David Robb) warns of “a chronic culture of neglect, of indifference and discrimination”. Leslie Thomas QC (Derek Elroy) points out that this disaster happened in one of the richest boroughs in the UK, yet the victims were overwhelmingly working class and people of colour: “The Grenfell fire did not happen in a vacuum . . . That political, social and economic context cannot be ignored.”
Tabernacle Theatre, London to November 13; Birmingham Rep, November 16-20, grenfellvalueengineering.com