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Freelance journalist

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Ron Alalouff is a journalist specialising in the fire and security markets, and a former editor of websites and magazines in the same fields.
April 13, 2023

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Grenfell: System Failure – A review… “The culpability for what happened must be a collective one”

Ron Alalouff gives his impressions on the play Grenfell: System Failure and its role in highlighting the shortcomings of the fire safety industry prior to the tragic fire.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect going to see Grenfell: System Failure, a theatrical production about the consequences of an awful event – the Grenfell Tower fire – which happened less than six years ago and is still very much in the minds of everybody affected.

I watched the previous iteration of the play based on phase 1 of the public inquiry, Grenfell: Value Engineering, on TV last year. But seeing it live this time was somewhat incongruous in terms of reliving the events with the trappings of the theatre – getting dressed to go out, interval drinks and above all, audience applause.

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Talking of which, it was palpable that members of the audience were considering whether and when it was appropriate to clap. The end of the first part before the interval was met with silence, while there was some muted applause at the end of the performance but no bowing or curtain calls by the actors.

To add to this feeling of mild discomfort, I knew or had at least met a few of the people portrayed in the proceedings in my professional life.

Why did Grenfell happen?

Based entirely on the words of those involved in the Grenfell Tower inquiry, the play examined the ‘why’. Why had the testing regime failed to warn of the danger of installing flammable materials, why had manufacturers promoted these products in the face of evidence that they were unsafe to use in tall residential buildings, why had building regulations and in particular Approved Document B not been revised and updated, and why had politicians created a culture that was anti-regulation?

The play also explores how residents were failed by the London Fire Brigade on the night – albeit actions that were taken in good faith and based on procedures that assumed a functioning fire safe building – and how they were poorly served by Kensington and Chelsea council in the aftermath of the fire.

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Ron Cook portraying Richard Millett QC (Credit: Grenfell: System Failure)

The production played a straight bat as far what was said by the actors – the extracts were taken verbatim from the inquiry proceedings and, as far as I’m aware, there was no embellishment of any dialogue for “dramatic purposes”. While this may at times resulted in a rather ‘dry’ delivery of lines, the ‘drama’ was all there in the inquiry excerpts and in the details of the various degrees of ignorance, negligence, recklessness and wrongdoing on the part of the various participants.

“Influential individuals mired in corporate groupthink”

As my job has involved reporting on some of the inquiry proceedings, and writing more widely about some of the measures since taken to make sure a tragedy like this never happens again, some of the proceedings in the play were pretty familiar. But what was new was the way the different blocks of evidence were edited and put together, so that they told a large part of the story of the inquiry proceedings, but in just a couple of hours. Credit for this must go to Editor Richard Norton-Taylor and Director and Co-Editor, Nicholas Kent.

The overwhelming impression I came away with was that the various individuals who could have influenced a different outcome to the fire were mired in corporate groupthink, and were not curious enough to ask the questions that needed to be asked, or to set alarm bells ringing when things didn’t look right. This went right across the board, from the manufacturing, testing and marketing of flammable insulation and cladding products, to the roles of officials and politicians. The culpability for what happened at Grenfell Tower must therefore be a collective one, rather than from any one organisation or individual. Grenfell: System Failure – it’s there in the title.


Grenfell: System Failure ran in London across three separate venues between February and March 2023. 

A related play, Grenfell: In the Words of Survivors will be running at the National Theatre from 13 July until 26 August 2023.

 

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