Review: ‘Grenfell’ Listens to the Survivors of a Towering Inferno

The notion of creating a safe space for an audience to experience a work of theater tends to provoke the tough-guy purists, because it sounds like coddling. Shouldn’t the stage be a place of daring, unhampered by any content revelations that might spoil the surprise?

Presumably, anyone who arrives at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn to see “Grenfell: in the words of survivors,” a tense and enthralling documentary play about a 2017 residential fire in West London that killed 72 people, is aware of the potentially upsetting subject matter. But before the storytelling even starts, the actors in this National Theater production set about making a safe space with a preamble whose clear language and kind tone are not the least bit soppy.

“We do want to reassure you that we will not be showing any images of fire,” one cast member says from the stage, which is surrounded on all sides by the audience. “If you need to leave even for a short break, our front of house staff will show you out, and if there’s an actor in the way when you want to leave, don’t worry, we will move.”

Another adds: “If you do leave, you’re welcome to come back.”

Our humanity tended to, the characters begin their recollections — nothing traumatic, not yet, just simple, sun-dappled memories. Because before Grenfell Tower, a 24-story public housing block, became a cautionary tale about the dangers of government penny-pinching and corporate corner-cutting, it was people’s home.

Thinking back on the apartments that had been their sanctuaries, they miss the freedom of life above the tree line, the view of the fireworks on New Year’s Eve, the quiet when they’d shut their door and leave the noise of the city outside. They miss the community of good neighbors.

“When I got my flat in Grenfell Tower,” Edward Daffarn (Michael Shaeffer) recalls, “my heart told me it was going to be OK. I was really, really happy.”

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