While the nation commences its parties for the Queen’s Jubilee this weekend, there is another far starker moment being marked in one corner of west London: the approach of the fifth anniversary of the catastrophe that took 72 lives on the night of 14 June 2017 inside the Grenfell Tower.
Playwright Nathaniel McBride brings his site-specific documentary drama, Dictating to the Estate, to the Maxilla Social Club in Kensington, which stands 200 metres from the site of the tower and became a collection point for donations in 2017. Its two-week staging will coincide with the fifth anniversary and follows another recent verbatim drama, Grenfell: Value Engineering, performed close to the tower but in far wealthier surroundings. It is a reminder of this borough’s enormous divide between rich and poor and McBride says the venue was chosen with the aim of drawing audiences “who would not normally attend a theatre play”.
Aside from the potent symbolism of its venue, McBride’s powerful drama is an audit of all the failings before the disastrous fire and an indirect reflection on what has – or has not – happened since.
Every word spoken by its five-strong cast (Tamara Camacho, Lucy Ellinson, Jon Foster, Avin Shah and Nathan Ives-Moiba, all artfully juggling multiple roles) has been taken from testimonies, council reports, emails or blogs, with material from the Grenfell Action Group blog, the government’s Grenfell Inquiry and feedback from residents and survivors. Several of its central players are familiar from that inquiry, including the architects, council officials (including fire consultant engineers) and contractors who are here shown to blatantly pass on responsibility for the decision to place unsafe cladding across the building. There are also residents mobilising their concerns and forming the Grenfell Action Group, as well as the voices of survivors and eye-witnesses.
What emerges is a narrative of heroic resistance by residents
Directed with great fluidity and momentum by Lisa Goldman and Natasha Langridge, the drama begins with an eyewitness account from a resident on the 16th floor who opened his door to see “a gush of thick, swirling, acrid smoke … I thought I was about to die”. It ends, mournfully, with a mother, having escaped the fire with her family despite the fire brigade’s advice to “stay put”, looking up to the tower, knowing her brother’s family of five are still trapped inside as the flames lap around them. Her final phone calls are absolutely heartbreaking.
Urgent and enraging … Jon Foster and Lucy Ellinson in Dictating to the Estate. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
It addresses the circumstances leading up to the fire, from a building refurbishment that seemed more concerned with aesthetics than safety to local authorities’ long history of ignoring the concerns of residents. Warning signs come: there is a fire in flat 64 of the building in 2010 (“My neighbour’s front door had melted,” says a neighbour), and a fire brigade inspection report that clearly states fire precaution in the building is still inadequate. There are severe power surges over the course of a night in 2013 which again carry the risk of fire, but still no action is taken.
What emerges is a narrative of heroic resistance by residents, who never stop campaigning and who warn of a potential catastrophe waiting to happen. Alongside this, a systematic stonewalling of these concerns by the building’s Tenant Management Organisation.
A greater socio-political context comes with the budget-slashing of the austerity years, and one of the most chilling scenes in the play features a speech by David Cameron on deregulation in which he vows to “kill off the health and safety culture for good” and adds, appallingly, that “some accidents are inevitable”.
As harrowing as this drama may be, it is rigorous, forensic and important. It is also compelling. While the more familiar material is no less shocking, there is much that is new, and horrifying.
It feels emphatically like theatre as a spur for action: there is a pamphlet from the Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission at the door of the venue and useful contacts for tower block tenants and activists in the programme.
“I like to think I am realistic about the ability of a stage play to mobilise people politically,” says McBride, “but perhaps it can make a small contribution towards the conditions in which such a mobilisation is possible.”
It was written with the aim of giving those in social housing the sense they are not alone, he adds, but also to convey his own revulsion for the policies, institutions and individuals that created the conditions which made the Grenfell Tower fire the appalling – and inevitable – tragedy it became.