The Burning Tower review – show staged on council estate responds to Grenfell

‘I’d love to call time on this, the world’s worst play,” says Em, a council estate girl with an activist streak. “But my mate won’t let me hear the end of it.” It’s an audacious line to include in a show which has just been interrupted by a character arriving deliberately late, accompanied by perhaps half the audience who got lost on the way in: SPID theatre is in a community space beneath Kensal House, a council block near Grenfell Tower, in London.

But this is not the world’s worst play. Quite the opposite. It is a passionate response to last June’s horrific events at Grenfell. It’s not an attempt to ascribe blame, but rather an act of advocacy. Each corner of the performance space has a small display about life on council estates: a board about Octavia Hill, the social housing pioneer; one on the Windrush generation, many of whom have struggled to maintain their tenancies following government policy shifts; a board memorialising those who died at Grenfell. The Burning Tower isn’t asking its audience to take to the streets, it’s asking them to celebrate, love and defend precisely the kind of housing estate we’re all sitting within. Precisely the kind that Grenfell was.

Em and her friend Sarah are young women on a mission. Em (Alice Franziska, all fizzing energy and determination) wants to remind us that things weren’t always as they are now. Social housing used to be affordable, we’re told by Sarah (Bianca Stephens, profoundly sincere and touching as the play’s moral core). They plan to entertain us with stories from council tenants they’ve interviewed, with raps Em has composed and with cupcakes, which they hand around for no real reason except the open-hearted generosity that informs their performances and the play itself.

An anarchic creation … Hayley Carmichael in The Burning Tower. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

But they are distracted by the arrival of the magnificent Hayley Carmichael, a nameless older woman, who responds to Em’s irritable suggestion that her outlook is Victorian with the swift retort, “I’m not offended. I like to think of myself as ageless.” She is an anarchic creation, hurling herself off a chair to proclaim it unsafe, always threatening to leave though never quite going. She swipes a hip flask and takes a swig before Em can stop her: “Oi madam, that is a prop.” It’s not good enough for the girls to tell her they love housing estates. She demands to know why. She also wants to know what is preying on Sarah’s spirit, though the woman prefers to call it her ghost. “I’m not here to blame anyone,” Sarah says. “But the truth is, I’m not fine.”

Helena Thompson’s pacy, ambitious script keeps us thinking about what it means to live as precariously as Em and Sarah do, delving into specifics to keep things from becoming cliche. Em’s family own their flat, through a right-to-buy scheme. Sarah has none of the stability that provides. But sudden bills for maintenance can mean that neither of them quite has what they first claimed as a virtue of council estates: somewhere to build on, somewhere to feel safe.

There are doubtless bigger budget productions being planned in response to Grenfell. There should be: it is a scar on our national conscience. But it’s hard to imagine any of them will offer more passion or sincerity than this one.

At SPID theatre, London, until 6 October. Then the Redwell Centre, Gloucester, on 7 October.

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