Scenes from the Grenfell Inquiry
By Richard Norton-Taylor
Produced and directed by Nicolas Kent
Powis Square, London W11
13 October-13 November 2021
Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Birmingham
20 November 2021
REVIEW BY STUART EAMES
Writer, director and an ensemble cast have skillfully recreated the drama of the Grenfell Inquiry into the inferno that cost 72 lives.
Displayed on a screen as the audience enters is: ‘This play is made up entirely from spoken evidence that was given under oath between November 2017 and March 2021.’
It is a very dense script performed in a restrained and lucid manner that nevertheless holds the audience throughout its over two hours.
The performance opens with evidence from expert witnesses.
Fire engineer Barbara Lane points out what one would thought to be obvious that that building regulations state the ‘external envelope of a building should not provide a medium for free spread. The use of combustible materials in the cladding system and extensive cavities may produce such a risk.’
She informed that between 2012 and 2016 the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) commissioned a major refurbishment of Grenfell Tower comprising a cladding system using ACM sheets either side of a highly flammable polyethylene core.
Fire infrastructure professor Luke Bisby told the inquiry that the cladding used on Grenfell comprised ‘highly flammable’ material ‘the media compare’ to ‘petrol or diesel’.
He gave the timeline of the rapid fire spread at the tower.
Firefighter David Badillo told the inquiry how he’d tried to save a 13-year-old boy, that his radio wasn’t working, how he and his colleagues were caught up in dense smoke.
Young fire control room officer Sarah Russell reveals that she was pitched in at the deep end with only a year’s experience trying to cope with calls from distraught tenants.
Bruce Souness of Studio E Architects admitted he had had no experience of the ACM cladding used on Grenfell but suffered amnesia when asked of he had let Kensington and Chelsea TMO know ‘that Studio E wasn’t experienced in high-rise projects or over cladding?’
He also ‘was not aware of’ any Studio E competence check by the Tory Kensington and Chelsea Council or its TMO.
Next up was Simon Lawrence, Rydon Contract Manager 2011-2014. The company was the main contractor for the refurbishment. Asked if he had been required to read building regulations or study the fire safety of building materials he replied ‘I don’t think so’ and ’No’.
Questioned on guidance ‘for the building envelope’, he said he was familiar with ‘the principle but not the technical part’.
He further claimed he was not aware that polyethylene was combustible.
He admitted he knew Rydon had got the job but would need to keep the cost down and that the biggest saving would come from aluminium ACM cladding at a saving of £376,175.
Inquiry counsel Richard Millett brings out that Claire Williams of the TMO had sought assurances from Lawrence in 2014 because she had ‘a Laknal moment’ – a reference to a fire at Lakanal House, south London, in 2009 in which 6 people died,
Lawrence denies the matter was raised with him.
Counsel for the Bereaved, Survivors and Residents Leslie Thomas QC stresses that ‘the community affected’ by the tragedy was ‘predominately working class’ and ‘the majority of people who died were people of colour’.
Act Two moves to the evidence from Ray Bailey, the owner of subcontractor Harley Curtain Wall and his son Ben Bailey, project manager on Grenfell Tower refurbishment 2015-May 2017.
Both showed unconcern, despite the father admitting he knew the ACM, as Inquiry counsel Millett put it, ‘would have gone rather quickly in a fire’, claiming the ‘fire certificate said it wouldn’t ignite’.
Son Ben said he didn’t think he was supposed to discuss with the council’s building control manager.
He denied getting a warning about a ‘weak link’ in the ‘terms of fire’ from a cavity barrier supplier.
The inquiry goes on to question the manufacturers of the Celotex cladding and their claims that it passed required tests. They give equivocal replies.
Kensington and Chelsea council’s Senior Building Control Surveyor John Hoban says he resigned at the end of March 2017 ‘because I’d had enough’.
He admitted he was aware ‘we had to be self-funding’, adding ‘there was obviously austerity measures as well at that time’.
He claimed he thought the cladding materials were compliant with regulations and admitted he ‘should have checked’ despite having a large workload of other projects.
He has an emotional outburst at the end of his testimony, saying building regulations were ‘ambiguous and confusing’ and he is ‘truly heartbroken’ for all those young and old who lost their lives.
Sales managers from manufacturers Arconic show little concern. TMO head of capital investment 2013-2016 David Gibson says he didn’t consider a warning from London Fire Brigade after the Lakanal House fire ‘rang an alarm bell’, as the Inquiry QC put it, in relation to Grenfell cladding.
Gibson admitted to an £800k refurbishment cost target, which included cladding savings.
He admits to a secret meeting to discuss cost.
TMO project manger Claire Williams was questioned about missing notebooks of a meeting with Rydon on 18 March 2014.
Asked why there is no written record of the meeting she says: ‘I don’t know’.
She says she ‘binned’ all but one of her notebooks when she left the TMO in May 2018.
It is put to her there was no record of any surprise or shock that the building was burning in the light of assurances given by Rydon to her or Gibson, which sees her in tears.
She later asks QC Millett to ‘be sensitive’ toward her and ends her testimony asking to express her condolences to those who died.
Director of Assets and Regeneration at the TMO, Peter Maddison admits ‘we were wanting to establish some value engineer… because at this time the scheme was over budget’.
He concludes ‘we weren’t looking for the cheapest’ but ‘the project was delivered on budget, so that’s the best sign as to whether or not the price was the correct one’.
The play’s last testimony is Bereaved, Survivors and Residents QC Michael Mansfield’s opening statement in which he says that what the Tory council ‘created was a chronic culture of neglect, of indifference and discrimination, underpinned by a theme of dishonesty in the sense of not revealing information’.
He quotes a 2010 letter from a concerned resident of Grenfell to the then council chief executive about faults found after a fire at that time in which he says the ‘residents have been treated as subhuman’.
Mansfield concludes: ‘That letter is a warning, seven years before, the same chief executive officer, the same TMO, that there will be an inferno.’
The play ends with no curtain call, just the names of the 72 dead displayed on a screen.