The Tabernacle, London – until 12 March 2023 (Marylebone Theatre, 14 March-26 March)
An Afghan army officer flees the Taliban and finds safety on the 23rd floor of Grenfell Tower. His local nickhame is “Sabar”, meaning “patient”, in tribute to his calm kind nature. When the fire erupts below them they obey the standard instruction to “stay put”. When no help arrives and his terrified choking wife has to be restrained from jumping, he tells her and his son to go down but stays, soldierly, to help four women, using wet towels against the terrible smoke. In his last moments Mohammed Abed Neda sends a calm farewell phone message: “I am leaving this world. Goodbye”. His wife and son escaped, stepping over the dying on the endless smoke-filled stairs.
There is a trigger warning before Imram Khan QC (played by Tanveer Ghani) calmly relates all this, but nobody leaves. Nor should we.
After the first part of this serious, devastating reconstruction of the Inquiry into Grenfell Tower, I titled the review “Devil in the details”. Meet new devils of detail in this new selection of scenes from the careful, civil questionings by Richard Millett QC (played by Ron Cook) under Sir Martin Moore-Bick (Thomas Wheatley). As before they remain as soberly unemphatic and untheatrical as the originals. This second part reinforces the same messages and morals but provokes new reflections beyond them. It isn’t just telling us about one tower, one fire, one multiple tragedy, but bristles with salutary warnings for politics, administration and simple professionalism across a range of duties and disciplines.
I had wondered how valuable would be the book-ending of this one by two individual cases – that of Sabar, above, and some opening evidence from Hisam Choucair (Shahzad Ali) about the chaos of official reaction on the ground as he searched through 11 hospitals in the hope, never fulfilled, of finding six of his family alive. My fear was of intrusive mawkishness, and besides my instinct was to leave the bereaved to mourn in private, while hungering as a citizen for practical detail: the nuts and bolts, the idlenesses and cynicisms and sloppy messagings and back-coverings and cheeseparing dismissiveness which enabled the disaster to be so extreme. I was wrong: both the quiet judgement of Choucair and the decency of patient Sabar contribute, without emotionalism, to the power of the inquiry itself.
It does return to the practical engineering – the disastrous choice of highly flammable cladding and designed ‘chimney’ gaps in the walling. There is a particularly shocking sequence of internal WhatsApp messages at Kingspan “shit product…LOL..” , a cultural cynicism which, unamazingly, their head of marketing claims not to recognize, perish the thought. And there’s a copybook example, from a Building Research Establishment expert, of what happens when as a mid-range functionary you know something is dodgy but don’t blow the whistle loudly enough because that would annoy a blustering, bumf-shuffling senior civil servant in a government department. “We spoke when we were invited to” says the BRE lady primly. Knowing, now, that she should have shouted. Or been encouraged to. This leads – via a remarkable performance by Nigel Betts as Brian Martin of the DCLG – to an unveiling of how David Cameron’s war on ‘red tape” encouraged carelessness in building regulations with its blithe chat about bureaucratic “enemies of enterprise” and the “unnecessary burden’ of things like – I dunno, checking that you’re not letting councils wrap skyscrapers in fast-flaming chemicals.
The overarching theme is in the title: it was systems that failed all along, both in national administration and regulation and in simple ground-level resilience and care (the community did a lot better than the Kensington and Chelsea Council, whose abiding shame this all is). The systems were ill-drawn and idly regulated, by people with insufficient respect for the masses beneath their attention.
But there is a sense of fairness, of seriousness in Nick Kent’s and Richard Norton-Taylor’s production. Even the dodgiest witnesses do not indulge in weasel faces and Iagoesque stagecraft. They just say the words as they were spoken, including the real, hindsighted shock and sorrow the disaster brought them. Chair and lawyers maintain the dispassionate tone, with only the tiniest flick of irritation as Moore-Bick introduces a new question: one finds oneself astonished at the lawyerly ability to concentrate on every word, every issue, every numbered piece of evidence: honour to them.
The only moment of comedy comes, and we are glad of it, in the evidence of LordPickles (Howard Crossley, resisting caricature even as he speaks the verbatim arrogant bluster of that personage). He is positively shocked that he should be expected “At My Level” to have known a damn thing about building regulations, and positively rebukes the QC for being “not familiar with how government works”.
Well, after a week of Hancock & co WhatsAppery we all have more of an idea than we maybe did before. Boris Johnson gets a discredit too, by the way: it wasn’t just Osborne’s carefree ‘austerity’ and the Kensington and Chelsea council mean minded maintenance of the block: for who was it as London Mayor who reduced fire stations and manpower? We see how it took a good few years to fashion the loopholes through which the lethal cladding was commissioned, bought and slapped on to prettify a towerful of poorer, less influential tenants.
We must wait for the full and final report of Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s Inquiry. But meanwhile, take the time to watch these excerpts and reflect. Every public servant should see it. Every voter, too.
Boxoffice. Grenfellsystemfailure.com Tabernacle, W11 till 12 March.
Then Marylebone Theatre 14-26 March