As mentioned in my preview of the performance, Helena Thompson’s ‘The Burning Tower’ is an interactive play responding to the terrible fire of Grenfell Estate in 2017. However, what you discover as an audience member is that the play, and the gallery exhibition that follows, doesn’t just cover the Grenfell fire, but other public outrages such as the Windrush scandal, the infamous housing shortages in the 1950s, and Octavia Hill’s battle against unfair housing as a social reformer.
As already said: ‘The Burning Tower’ is an immersive piece, that requires you to be physically interacting, like when an audience member was picked out to be a part of a magic trick, or simply addressing the audience directly. The three actresses were constantly involving the audience during the performance. The theatre space also played a role in engaging the audience. As there were only three actresses on stage, surrounded by audience members in a small room, everything felt a lot more intimate. Particularly when the room was plunged into darkness to represent Grenfell’s shadow casting over Kensal House, which is only ten minutes away from the infamous estate, making the play feel much more real for the audience. Although the Grenfell fire actually happened, many people can’t visualise something as catastrophic as that occurring in their lives, so they subconsciously detach themselves from the situation, even those who experienced it, as many people believe that detachment is the only way to deal with something so horrific.
Bianca Stephens highlighted this when I talked with her after the show. Stephens said how she didn’t want people to stop talking about Grenfell Tower, as the best way to learn from a mistake is not to shy away from it but to address it head-on; to forgive, but to never forget. Stephens said that when the Company went on tour around England, the same problem of social housing was evident in the estates they performed at. This underlines the fact that no matter where you are, the problem of social housing still persists, with Bianca suggesting that one of the reasons for this still being an issue is simply because “people aren’t aware,” and whether you choose to look the other way or genuinely have no idea about these struggles, admitting that something needs to be done is a huge step towards a fairer housing system.
Bianca’s character: Sarah ran back to save her mum from being consumed by flames in the Grenfell fire. However, more problems arose when the audience found out that her mum was also being threatened to be deported due to the Windrush scandal – linking these two otherwise unrelated social issues together through a lack of care. A lack of care regarding the safety of residents from Grenfell Tower, and a lack of care regarding the freedom of those connected to the Windrush generation. This kind of social negligence leads to a loss of faith in our government, and resulting in people like Sarah ending up on the streets. A line from the play that best describes this sense of hopelessness is: “And I tell you what, most of us ‘heroes’ – we’re still trapped.”
Emma, played by Alice Franziska, is Sarah’s best friend, but unlike Sarah, doesn’t have any problems with where she lives. Em does reside in an estate, but a much better one than Grenfell Tower ever was, so there is an unspoken tension between the two girls during the first half of the play when they are explaining to the audience their campaign, as Em cannot relate to the West London social housing crisis that Sarah is experiencing. Another matter explored throughout ‘The Burning Tower’ is the concept of love, and how it is almost a taboo in gang culture. Hayley Carmichael’s character – the ‘latecomer’ – helped Sarah and Em express their love for one another and say what they really felt about each other and the situation they were in. Emma finally admitted near the end of play that although she couldn’t empathise with Sarah, she definitely sympathised for her, and would do anything in her power to help, such as when she offers Sarah a place to stay in her home. In Sarah’s case, she finally admitted that she needed help and seems to accept Emma’s offer.
The third cast member, actress and theatre-director, Hayley Carmichael, portrays a homeless woman who interrupts Emma and Sarah’s campaign by correcting them on facts about London’s past. At first, the two girls are irritated by the woman’s interruption, but as the woman opens up about herself and expresses her love for life, the two girls begin to unintentionally open up about themselves too. The woman teaches the girls a moral lesson in acceptance: acceptance of pain and love, and in the end, of homeless people. Despite Sarah technically being without a home herself, she refuses to listen to the latecomer at first due to her being homeless. Initially, Sarah and Em act like they are almost disgusted by the woman – alluding to one of the many contradictions in society: how we donate to homeless charities, but then spit at homeless people sleeping on our streets. However, as the girls learn more about the latecomer, they realise she is a kind and caring soul who understands both of their situations, and teaches that the best way to solve any problem in life is to talk with and to listen to one another, because that is the only efficient way to get things done.
Speaking of talking, a common social norm is for males to never open up and discuss with others their emotions; it is hard for them to say “I love you” to their mate without worrying about sounding “gay,” which is exactly what is explored in ‘The Burning Tower’ when Emma shouts “I love you” to Sarah, and Sarah’s initial response is along the lines of: “I’m not a lesbo.” This also applies to the younger generation or anyone who puts up a front, which also explains Sarah’s attachment to her knife in the play. There is a time during the performance when Sarah seems to be having a panic-attack, because the sound of a fire alarm reminds her of the Grenfell fire. During this episode, Sarah pulls out her knife and points it at the latecomer. After she has calmed down and is questioned for why she has it, her excuse is that it is for ‘protection’ on the streets, but after a huge discussion about honesty and shame, the audience find out it was used for self-harm – reminding us of how many children use violence to avoid the truth of their suffering. Fortunately, to the audience’s relief, Sarah gives her knife to the woman at the end of the play, which could be seen as an act of apology to both the woman and to herself.
This idea of supporting one another through hard times is also explored when the audience were given numbered letters and then asked to read them out-loud. As audience members said what was on their piece of paper, it was apparent that we were listing what defines a loving relationship. I was given letter eleven, and it read: ‘Who makes you better.’ This short yet profound statement resonated with me throughout the rest of the performance, and just goes to show that no matter what hardships you are facing, as long as you are not alone, you can overcome anything.
‘The Burning Tower’ runs till the 6th October, tickets are available on bushtheatre.co.uk and spidtheatre.com.