Deepcut is a play that treads a strange and provocative line between journalism and drama. As a piece of theatre it is breathless, passionate and involving. Ciaran McIntyre is quite brilliant as Des, the father of Cheryl James, who died at the Deepcut Barracks in 1995. Mick Gordon’s direction manages the (self-imposed) constricted space very well, and the simple, homely scenery manages to convey the claustrophobia and disturbance of the family’s situation without distracting from the action. Robert Bowman is equally effective as the infuriatingly government-line Nicholas Blake QC, who represents the bland and ubiquitous stance of the establishment towards the emotional plight of James’ parents, and Simon Molloy’s journalist is a convincing truth-seeker, laden with the collective guilt of the journalistic profession that failed to press for a full inquiry into the Deepcut deaths.
Yet this is precisely where the flaws in Philip Ralph’s play become apparent. For the journalist does, at times, take on the unfortunate role of lecturer; his didactic tone is emphasised by the way he scrawls, in bold black letters, the key points of the play upon the James family’s kitchen wall, rather like a teacher at a blackboard. The effect of his regrettable, if understandable, sermonising is that the emotional plight of Des and Doreen James is underdeveloped. By the end of the play, I could not help but feel that two bold and empathetic performances had been subordinated to a tabloidesque outrage at the raw history behind the drama. This is not to mention Rhian Blythe’s informative contribution as a solider serving at Deepcut at the same time as Cherl, who serves as both an eyewitness to Cheryl James’ final days and a surrogate character for Cheryl herself, through whom the audience experiences Cheryl’s vitality and, perhaps most significantly, her alleged normality before her alleged suicide; one of the various testimonies that call the official verdict of suicide into question.
For this play’s effectiveness rests ultimately on the question of evidence, and how evidence can occasionally fail to translate into truth. The penitent (and oddly dressed) forensic investigator provides intriguing evidence that runs contrary to the official verdict of suicide recorded in each of the four deaths at Deepcut. Likewise, the ugly presence of a replica SA80, the weapon used in each death, is a graphic and implacable piece of realism that brings a bizarrely logical sense of the violence at the heart of the scenario to the stage. Together they make for a compelling CSI-type performance of possible truth that is ultimately defied by the official version of events, but nevertheless creates an absorptive atmosphere of desire to speak truth to power and interrogate any and all government-sanctioned conclusions. Ultimately, this is a worthy piece of political theatre that is perhaps guilty of forgetting its dramatic roots.
Review by Morgan Davies