So many warnings, so many deaths

A disaster predicted

Gaby Rubin reviews 'Dictating to the estate' written by Nathaniel McBride, directed by Lisa Goldman and Natasha Langridge, performed at the Maxilla Social Club

On the night of the 2017 fire in Grenfell Tower, the nearby Maxilla Social Club had shut its doors at 11.30pm. At 1.30am, when staff living nearby saw the flames, they unlocked the doors and kept the club open all night, serving tea and coffee to everyone involved.

As you walk under the flyover towards the social club, the entire area is covered with painted signs and hand-drawn graffiti. The green heart on the top of Grenfell looms large over you. The names of every one of the 72 who died are there in large letters. It is a grim reminder of the struggle of the residents to have a safe building - a struggle which was ignored for years.

The Maxilla Social Club was therefore, an excellent venue for this play, Dictating to the estate. Unlike most of the articles/TV programmes, etc marking the fifth anniversary of the fire, this docudrama concentrates on the years leading up to the fire. Taken from minutes of meetings, emails and discussions, the play demonstrates in stark terms the obfuscations, glad-handing and downright lying that led to the council, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, deciding to “regenerate” the building in the cheapest way possible.

Nathaniel McBride, the playwright, lives in Notting Hill, near to Grenfell. After a few years of research, he wrote the piece with the help of Lisa Goldman acting as script consultant. He is not a professional playwright - this is his first venture into playwriting (his actual work is German translation). He is, however, an activist. He took some time in the local elections to stand as a Labour candidate in a Tory-dominated borough. He has been on the Grenfell walks and involved with those fighting for justice. Before the play was advertised, it was read by and discussed with former residents who had been involved in the fire, relatives of the deceased and, to make sure nothing could lead to court action, legal advice was also obtained. Nathaniel said he “didn’t want to get it wrong”.

Lisa Goldman, who is also co-director along with Natasha Langridge, is a noted playwright and director. She has a play about Cable Street coming up at the National Theatre. As for the cast of Dictating to the estate, it consists of just five people, who between them play 48 characters. The stage is in the Social Club, with a screen behind them showing photos, cartoons from the time and quotes, as the play continues. The floor is bare, props consist of chairs, tables, a loudhailer and pieces of paper. The actors are virtually never off stage and change from personality to personality in the blink of an eye. In addition they move the tables and chairs for each scene with fluidity. They are obviously well directed and dedicated to their roles. The play is about two hours long, but goes by quickly. The twists and turns of the action keep the audience riveted.

Originally, the council saw Grenfell as blighting the area. It was regarded as a demolition project, as the land itself was regarded as a gold mine. But that would have meant marginalising the people in the building, almost all of whom were black or brown, mostly not speaking English as their first language, and many in social housing. For various (financial) reasons, it was decided to “regenerate” the building instead, which included adding cladding to the outside to make it look more upscale.

Although at times the names of the personages involved become a blur, very subtle changes in attitude, facial gestures and body posture allow the audience to think, ‘We’ve seen this person before’. One character is always holding his tie, another changes her facial expression like a chameleon. Women playing men splay their legs like men do. The actor playing Eric Pickles sits in a chair and thrusts his stomach out - you know who he is alright. The play is gender-blind - although men do not play women, I noticed. This is probably because there were more men - engineers, civil servants, architects etc - involved in the Grenfell fiasco than women.

I assume the directors have a nice sense of humour. There is a scene where two characters playing contractors stand back to back and turn in a circle to face each resident who speaks. The main activist then says: “We’re going round in circles.”

The play begins and ends with the words of residents. The first, who opens the play, describes how he managed to flee from the building. He recalls not being able to see the walls in the hallway because of the thick smoke, until a firefighter, lying on the floor of the staircase because the smoke is thinner there, tapped his leg. At that point he could see the staircase and ran for his life.

The epilogue to the play is in the words of a resident whose immediate family survived, although his brother’s family did not. It ends with the words. “Within a week of the fire they told us it was unlikely they [his brother’s family] had survived. We didn’t get confirmation until weeks later that Abdudaziz, Faouzia, Yasmin, Nur Huda and Mehdi had all died in the fire.”

At the end, the audience was silent for several seconds, many wiping their eyes. Then a torrent of applause for an exceptional performance.

Dismal failings

The play traces the residents’ complaints about the structural faults of the tower, which had not been improved since it was built. One of the major problems was that the fire precautions had never been updated, tested or even examined from the 1970s. It seems that each contractor involved in the “regeneration” - the council’s tenant management organisation (TMO), the housing authority, the architects, the building contractors, the subcontractors for the cladding, the British Board of Agrément, even the fire department - denied direct responsibility for fire testing. Each assumed that others would have told them if anything was wrong.

Passing responsibility from one organisation to another, and at times refusing to spend money for testing, or to follow up on testing results, each displayed an astonishing lack of interest or professionalism. Here are some examples:

Example after example, meeting after meeting, email after email show the ineptness, mendaciousness, penny-pinching and lying that went on from organisation to organisation dealing with Grenfell. At one point the colour of the cladding became the single most important item in the “refurbishment”.

The words of the Grenfell Action Group’s blog are frighteningly prescient. They

firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the TMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and the neglect of health and safety legislation they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.

The Grenfell Action Group has reached the conclusion that only an incident that results in serious loss of life will allow the external scrutiny that will shine a light on the practices that characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation.

It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block … is the most likely reason that those who wield power … will be found out and brought to justice.

The Grenfell Action Group predict the words of this blog will come home to haunt the … management.

To date, however, no-one has been held to account for the dereliction of duty that caused the fire.

The playwright, directors, producer, cast and everyone else involved are trying to raise funds to take the production to other cities, where high-rise tower blocks are a problem. If it comes to your area or city, run, don’t walk, to see it.