'Grenfell: in the words of survivors' review — docudrama ignites strong emotions

Read our review of Grenfell: in the words of survivors off Broadway, a play about a 2017 London fire adapted from real interviews of survivors and locals.

Amelia Merrill
Amelia Merrill

British audiences may have walked into Grenfell: in the words of survivors feeling like they knew everything that was about to happen. American audiences seeing the production, transplanted from London's National Theatre to Brooklyn's St. Ann’s Warehouse, may be in the dark. But Gillian Slovo’s play, lifted mostly from survivors’s statements and public records, shines a glaring light from which one cannot hide.

The ensemble comes to life as the survivors of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, doubling as the business executives whose faulty decisions brought their lives tumbling down and the investigators who brought the facts forward. The former residents who made their lives in Grenfell Tower air their frustrations with the tenant management organization, the local government, the building itself.

After a long list of grievances, the fact that a 2015-2016 refurbishment changed the floor and apartment numbers just seems funny – and it is to some of the characters, at first. Then they point out that the new numbers only make it harder for a firefighter to know where they are in the building. It is these sobering moments that grip you in Grenfell as a what-would-you-do sense of dread takes over.

It is impossible not to look at the faces in the round and watch realizations dawn on each of them; audience members weren’t just crying at the stories of the survivors, but also wincing, groaning, putting their heads in their hands. You are forced to face each other as the emergency exit signs glow and characters discuss which neighbors helped them escape and which ran past.

Directors Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike’s staging has achieved a Brechtian call-to-action without the ostentatiousness of many productions that strive for a similar revelation. Some of this momentum is undercut, however, by a short documentary screened at the end of the play. We are by then familiar with the perspectives shared on screen, and though the cast further engages us by handing out signs calling for justice, the film itself feels like an afterthought.

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Grenfell: in the words of survivors summary

Grenfell: in the words of survivors is a piece of verbatim theatre that uses witness and survivor statements and the text of a public inquiry to dramatize the Grenfell Tower fire. Early in the morning of June 14, 2017, a fire broke out in an apartment in the Grenfell Tower, a public housing building in North Kensington, London. The fire quickly spread to the whole building, due in part to combustible materials used in a recent renovation.

Firefighters spent hours combatting the flames and rescuing residents, but the fire killed 72 people. In Grenfell, we get to know some residents of the building before the fire and follow them as they struggle to escape, survive, and fight for justice. This fight, the program and production note, is ongoing.

What to expect at Grenfell: in the words of survivors

Grenfell: in the words of survivors discusses the Grenfell Tower fire and its aftermath at length, and actors note at the beginning of the show that audience members can step into the lobby if they feel overwhelmed. No images from the fire are shown on the screens that circle the playing space, but dramatizations of emergency calls are played.

As Slovo lifts much of the text from survivor statements, the play includes graphic accounts of the fire and near-death experiences. Some audience members are asked to vacate their seats at the end of the play to accommodate the film screening.

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What audiences are saying about Grenfell: in the words of survivors

Grenfell: in the words of survivors has a rating of 92% on Show-Score.

Read more audience reviews of Grenfell: in the words of survivors on Show-Score.

Who should see Grenfell: in the words of survivors

  • Those with passionate interests in housing policy and/or social justice will be enthralled by Grenfell.
  • If you’ve enjoyed previous productions at St. Ann’s Warehouse, you won’t be disappointed by another international collaboration at the Brooklyn theatre.
  • British expats may find Grenfell compelling in a way that hits close to home.

Learn more about Grenfell: in the words of survivors off Broadway

Despite some repetitive moments in the staging of inquiry testimony, Grenfell is as captivating as it is terrifying.

Learn more and get Grenfell: in the words of survivors tickets on New York Theatre Guide. Grenfell: in the words of survivors is at St. Ann's Warehouse through May 12.

Photo credit: Grenfell: in the words of survivors off Broadway. (Photos by Teddy Wolff)

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