Governmental whitewashes are nothing new – if anything, during the Blair years their frequency made them an almost acceptable component of everyday politics. But when the matter being covered up involves the suspected murders of four young people, it becomes more than mere political sleight-of-hand and highlights the frightening mechanisms at work in some of this country's largest and most powerful institutions.
The events at the Deepcut barracks between 1995 and 2002 are now notorious – four young soldiers died at the training base, their deaths all put down to suicide. One of those soldiers was 18-year-old Private Cheryl James, whose parents Des and Doreen (Ciaran McIntyre and Rhian Morgan) continue to campaign for a full investigation into the murky circumstances surrounding her death.
Despite its sombre subject matter, Philip Ralph's Deep Cut - a Fringe First winner at Edinburgh last year - starts lightly, with Des apologetically and humorously recalling his memories of the young Cheryl. What soon becomes clear is that she was a very ordinary teenager, and like many ordinary teenagers, found the lure of adventure offered by a career in the army hard to resist. Cheryl is represented in the play by a portrait that hangs on the wall, while her friend and young colleague Jonesy (Rhian Blythe) gives the inside view on life at the barracks, and the often wafer-thin line between success and tragedy in the army: “It made me, but it killed Cheryl”.
The success of Deep Cut lies in its ability to link top-level failings to ground-level emotions. The blank refusal of Nicholas Blake QC (Simon Molloy) to accept any other conclusion than suicide is just as bafflingly inhumane as the fact that Des and Doreen James didn't even receive a letter of condolence from Cheryl's commanding officer at the time of her death.
- Theo Bosanquet
NOTE: The following THREE STAR review dates from this production's premiere at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, in August 2008
Between 1995 and 2002, four young Army recruits died of suspicious gunshot wounds at the Deepcut army barracks in Surrey. This comprehensive new play by Philip Ralph explores the protracted limbo of grief experienced by the family of recruit Cheryl James in their struggle for a full enquiry into her untimely death.
Ralph draws heavily on oral testimony to create this dramatization of James’s case, enclosed the drama of the Deepcut tragedy within the urbane confines of the James family sitting room.
A utilitarian, grave quality marks the performances, underpinned by the quotidian setting, epitomized by Ciaran McIntyre’s studied portrayal of bereaved father Des. More nuanced, though occasionally veering towards the histrionic, is Rhian Morgan’s Doreen James, a generally layered and moving portrayal of a proud mother’s seething anger and grief tethered by a stiff upper lip. Similarly powerful, Rhian Blythe’s good-natured squaddie Jonesy has her scrubbed-up girl-next-door façade eroded by embroilment in the dark side of barrack life.
The creative use of the set, particularly the gradual decline of Doreen James’ immaculate nest into a chaotic jumble of memories is organically woven into the narrative. Somewhat underused are the wipe-clean flats flanking the set, utilised by Robert Bowman’s zealous Cathcart as a notepad for his journalistic impressions, a technique with much potential which is sadly rather haphazardly applied.
Sadly, the removal of Cheryl James’ portrait from the sitting room wall 30 minutes in marks a shift from a creative and multi-faceted exploration of familial loss to a more conventional, if informative, cross-examination of the Deepcut whitewash. An earlier promise to show a video recording of Cheryl was not delivered, and I felt this could have provided an important and powerful denouement - the last word should, after all, be hers.
Deep Cut is honest and unpretentious theatre, which works hard to maintain visual interest and frequently succeeds in its aim to move and inform, vitally raising awareness of the unacceptable cover-ups that persist at the core of the military justice system. A more creative application of the source material could make it revolutionary.