The Tabernacle, London, until
Nov 13; Birmingham Rep, Nov
16 – Nov 20
The secret to writing a great legal drama is normally to keep the action out of the courtroom and as far away from the lawyers as possible. Terence Rattigan got that when he wrote The Winslow Boy. It was the human stories behind that celebrated legal fight – it was based on a true story – that brought his play alive.
Value Engineering: Scenes from the Grenfell Inquiry is, by contrast, a verbatim reconstruction of the Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry. It’s played out in an inquiry room, ably created by Miki Jablkowska and Matt Eagland. The reliably brilliant Ron Cook plays Richard Millett QC, the lead counsel to the inquiry. Sir Martin Moore-Bick, its chairman, is played with understated gravitas by Thomas Wheatley.
Our country has always had a wonderful ability to discuss in formal legal settings the most appalling tragedies in a cool, courteous, but unflinching way. I have read the verbatim account into the sinking of the Titanic, and, more than a century on, I found myself reminded of it by the Grenfell inquiry. The same deadly obsession, for instance, with aesthetics – the cladding to the tower where 72 people perished needed to look good, rather than to be fire-resistant, just as all those extra lifeboats on the liner wouldn’t have looked pretty.
I dipped in and out of the media coverage of the public inquiry into Grenfell and never had a chance to consider it more or less in its entirety. This play makes me aware of the greed and casual indifference to human life that caused the tragedy. It made me incandescent with rage. The individuals called to give evidence – played by, among others, Daniel Betts and Claire Lams – make a sorry sight.
The words spoken at the inquiry speak for themselves. The actors do not, at the end, take a bow.
The Tabernacle is virtually in the shadow of the derelict tower. Everyone involved in this production – directed by Nicholas Kent, with the inquiry transcripts edited by him and Richard Norton-Taylor – are acutely aware that this is theatre a lot more important than any of them. That is precisely why it is so powerful.