The Guardian exclusive announcement

The Guardian exclusive announcement
The following article was published by The Guardian online on Sunday 4 December 2022 and in print on Monday 5 December 2022.

Second Grenfell Tower inquiry play to put Eric Pickles in spotlight

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent
Sun 4 Dec 2022 09.10 GMT

A play dramatising the “merry-go-round of buck-passing” at the Grenfell Tower public inquiry will open in February, casting actors as Eric Pickles, the former housing secretary, and Hisam Choucair, who lost six members of his family in the 2017 fire.

Grenfell: System Failure will be the sequel to a critically acclaimed verbatim play exploring the disastrous construction project that led to west London council block being clad in plastic panels that burned like petrol.

Lord Pickles, who stunned the bereaved when he complained that questioning at the inquiry might make him late for his next appointment, was accused of failing to tighten building regulations after an earlier fire, despite being instructed to do so by a coroner.

The play will show him being cross-examined by Richard Millett KC, who closed the evidence sessions last month by saying that after hearings over four years in which different companies, public bodies and agencies had blamed each other, “the merry-go-round turns still”.

David Cameron’s “assault on red tape”, which he launched in the coalition government and prevented ministers from introducing regulations unless they scrapped at least one other rule, will also be scrutinised.

The show is the latest cultural response to the inquiry, which has included several other plays, books, podcasts and TV programmes.

Written by Richard Norton-Taylor, a playwright and former Guardian journalist, and directed by Nicolas Kent, the show will spotlight the stories of two families devastated by the fire – the Choucairs and the relatives of Saber Neda, an Afghan army officer who came to the UK in 1998 after fleeing the Taliban and worked as a minicab driver. His wife and son escaped their 23rd floor flat through thick smoke; he was going to follow, but stayed behind to help two other women. He fell from the top floor.

The pair’s previous play, Grenfell: Value Engineering did not feature any of the bereaved or survivors, but focused on the building companies, council officials, experts and firefighters.

Choucair told the inquiry the council did not contact him for days after the fire as he searched for his mother, sister, brother-in-law and their three daughters – all of whom died.

He described the prospect of his testimony being dramatised as “a bit strange”, but told the Guardian: “I hope that what has been said will be understood and taken seriously. I hope the seriousness of what was said is put into the theatre.”

The play will also show the current London fire brigade commissioner, Andy Roe, being cross-examined about institutional failures, as well as senior government officials and safety experts.

The play will open on 18 February – at the Playground Theatre, the Tabernacle and the Marylebone Theatre, all in west London – as the inquiry chair, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, continues to consider the evidence ahead of his final report, which is not expected before October 2023.

Norton-Taylor said he hoped the play would help “keep the thing alive” in the public consciousness. “The evidence needs to be heard and listened to as much as possible,” he said. “This was totally avoidable, but a reflection of other parts of British society we are still facing now.”

Kent said: “During the run of the previous play in October 2021, there was much pressure from the Grenfell community and audiences for us to complete the story of the final phase of the Grenfell Tower inquiry. This second play focuses on the vital questions of how the cladding/insulation manufacturers, the London fire brigade, government regulators and politicians could have averted this terrible fire, and how they failed the local community in the chaos of its aftermath.”

Grenfell: System Failure is at The Playground Theatre, London, 18-25 February, the Tabernacle, London, 27 February–12 March, and Marylebone Theatre, London, 14-26 March.