Review by Brittany Crowell

In 2017, London, a community went up in flames.  Grenfell Tower, a 24-story high rise apartment building in the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea caught fire and due to the gross negligence of a variety of suppliers, government agencies that turned a blind eye, and flawed safety systems and processes, the lives of 72 people were lost and the homes of countless more destroyed.

Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors, as told by the National Theatre at St. Anne’s Warehouse, is built around interviews with 11 survivors of the fire.  The first act follows subjects as they share stories of moving into the building and the community they found there, but also speak of the administrations that took advantage of them and didn’t listen to them, that made “repairs” and “improvements,” that cut corners and inconvenienced residents.  

As one survivor says, the fire was less of a prophecy and more of a prediction, and “…to predict something is going to happen and have it happen and not be able to stop it: There’s no words for that.”  In the second act, this prediction comes true.  The piece jumps between trial hearings with fire marshals, building security, renovation supervisors and production suppliers of the highly flammable items used in the refurbishment of the building a few years prior, while following survivor’s journeys out of the burning building.  Gillian Slovo’s proficiency in novel writing gives an added depth to the piece as she weaves together fact and narrative, information and emotion, causing the piece to hit just right and to grip the audience for the full three hour run time.

Co-directors Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike utilize a large blank theater in the round as a canvas for the dance of community, fear, terror, and escape.  Set and costume designer Georgia Lowe arms building residents with one large file box which serves as chair, stair, prop storage and reminder of the items lost in (and the small, smokey ones that could be saved from) the fire.  Lighting and video designers Azusa Ono and Akhila Krishnan transform the stage, with help of sound designer Donato Wharton, into a cold courtroom, warm courtyard, and echoey staircase as the interviews transport us to these locations.

Houda Echouafni as Rabia Rahya; photo by Teddy Wolff.

The actors in the piece accurately portray (and acutely resemble) their subjects.  A video towards the end of the experience showcases actual interview subjects and places them next to their actors as we put the face of a real life individual next to the name.  The incredibly strong ensemble fully embodies their characters, building for the audience a story not only of a fire, but of the fully realized individuals that it impacted.  Particularly moving was Houda Echouafni‘s harrowing portrayal of Rabia Rahya’s journey leading her children down the stairs of the burning building, unable to see anything, unsure of if they would make it out alive.

The company and audience of
Grenfell outside of St. Ann’s Warehouse; photo by Teddy Wolff

Grenfell ends by incorporating the audience into a silent protest not unlike the protests the community participated in in years following the fire.  Paper mache heart signs reading “justice,” “Grenfell,” “community,” “love” are handed out as the audience are silently ushered from the space to the courtyard at St Ann’s.  From its opening, the play is clear about its purpose: a plea for change and a lesson for citizens to stand up and demand better from the administrations meant to be supporting them.  Beautifully, the play is also about community: about knowing your neighbor, about standing by and supporting those who make their homes near yours.  A piece of documentary theater that combines perfect portions of fact, statistics, politics, and emotion; Grenfelll: In the Words of Survivors bakes up a well-seasoned call to action; enlightening and inspiring citizens to take part in their local community and take care of each other.


GRENFELL: IN THE WORDS OF SURVIVORS – by Gillian Slovo; directed by Phyllida Lloyd & Anthony Simpson-Pike

FEATURING: Joe Alessi, Gaz Choudhry, Jackie Clune, Houda Echouafni, Mona Goodwin, Keaton Guimarães-Tolley, Ash Hunter, Rachid Sabitri, Michael Shaeffer, Dominique Tipper, and Nahel Tzegai.

Set and costume design by Georgia Lowe; lighting design by Azusa Ono; sound design by Donato Wharton; video design by Akhila Krishnan; compositions by Benjamin Kwasi Burrell, additional music by Brian Rays; and movement direction by Chi-San Howard.  Produced by the National Theater, St. Ann’s Warehouse, and KPPL Production. Through May 12.