The final cut: Is theatre the place to revisit the Deepcut barracks scandal?

Click to follow

Remember the Deepcut scandal? You know, the period between 1995 and 2002 when four young recruits died of gunshot wounds at a Surrey barracks, and parents claimed there was a cover-up? The latest news, that the Army is selling the camp to developers, gives a false impression of closure. Six years on from the last of the deaths, no one who knows the details could possibly be satisfied with the outcome.

But if Deepcut is now history to many, it is nothing of the kind to the world of theatre, for not one but two new plays have been written about it. First we have Deep Cut, by Philip Ralph, which opens at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh tomorrow, and in the autumn will come Fiona Evans's Geoff Dead: Disco For Sale, at the Live Theatre in Newcastle.

Why, at a time when some newspapers have stopped reporting on Deepcut, do Ralph and Evans think theatregoers can be persuaded to care? And does it show that drama can do things, in this campaigning sphere, that we hacks can't?

I wrote a fair amount about Deepcut, much of it for this newspaper, and as the case has faded from public memory in the past 18 months, I am delighted to see the theatre having a go.

One problem for reporters was that Deepcut wasn't really about what the headlines suggested. It broke as a murder mystery: four young people were dead and nobody could say why. Not unreasonably, readers wanted to know who had done it, but, unfortunately, it was soon clear that we would probably never know that with confidence, because the initial police investigations were so flawed.

Most of us following the events closely came to believe that the real story was a different one. It was about an Army camp, full of teenage recruits, that was allowed to run out of control; why this had happened; and who was responsible. We stopped asking who pulled the trigger (there wasn't much point); we wanted to know exactly who it was, in the Army's high command and in the Government, who allowed the circumstances to arise in which four young people could die in this way.

A public inquiry was the obvious course, and was what the families wanted, but the Ministry of Defence would not have that. Instead, it came up with a behind-closed-doors "review", led by Nicholas Blake QC, which found nobody responsible for anything.

The rules of news make any return very difficult. Reporters need something new, but one problem with Deepcut is that the Government has a stranglehold on the information. And reporters need to persuade readers to look afresh at the stories.

Drama has no such constraints. "My play asks questions, it doesn't offer answers," says Ralph, whose commission came from a Welsh body, Sgript Cymru, and who relies heavily on verbatim passages from the case documents and interviews. "In the theatre, audiences want that sort of complexity. We don't have to boil it all down to a few words."

Where Deep Cut focuses on the experience of the parents of Cheryl James, who was the second of the four recruits to die, Evans's play will look mainly at the Grays, whose son Geoff was the third to die. "It is about the emotional journey of these characters," she says. "Newspapers might look at that, but only in a macro sense. We can deal with it on the micro scale."

It is also a relief to know that the fight goes on. Ralph and Evans are playwrights and not propagandists but, like any fair-minded person who looks critically at the story of Deepcut, they know that justice has not been done. I'm happy to think that their audiences will see that too.

Deep Cut, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Friday to 24 August. Geoff Dead: Disco For Sale, 15 October to 8 November, Live Theatre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University