A story can dominate the news for days then simply slide from the front pages and, as a result, from public consciousness too.
Cheryl James was eighteen years old and had only been in the army a matter of months when she was found dead with a bullet wound to the head at Deepcut barracks in Surrey.
Finding it hard to believe that their young daughter would take her own life, her parents attempted to extract information about the case from the military but their enquiries were met with indifference and obstruction.
Realising that their efforts were getting them nowhere and tired of fighting, they resolved to go on with their lives, to try and move forwards. And for a while this is what they did, until, some years later, it was revealed that there had been three other deaths of young soldiers at the same barracks three deaths that were, like Cheryl’s, all said to have been self-inflicted even though evidence to support this was at best tenuous and suddenly there was media interest in the case. For a while photos of the four young soldiers smiled out from every news bulletin and the original investigations were revealed to be riddled with inconsistencies and incompetence. There was outrage, anger, and then nothing. When things settled down and the news crews went elsewhere, the families were left no closer to knowing the truth.
Now writer Philip Ralph has compiled a play from verbatim transcripts and publicly available documents which aims to reawaken people’s awareness of the injustice surrounding the case. The production, which began life at the Sherman Cymru, and won considerable acclaim at last summer’s Edinburgh Festival, draws on Heather Mills and Brian Cathcart’s investigative article Deep Cut: Shots in the Dark which originally appeared in Private Eye.
In the play, Ralph mixes the words of Cheryl’s parents, Des and Doreen with those of Frank Swann, a forensics expert who highlights the gaping holes in the theory that these young people killed themselves, and Nigel Blake QC, the man responsible for the report into the case that would confirm the verdict as suicide. We also hear from Jonsey, a fellow cadet of Cheryl’s at Deepcut and from Cathcart, the voice of the press who did not forget, who kept digging.
Because this is theatre and not just a clinical inspection of the evidence, a narrative of sorts is imposed on the material and there is, on occasion, a degree of uneasiness about the way Mick Gordon’s production pushes emotional buttons. We see Des James’ understandable rage and frustration at the MOD’s total lack of cooperation and compassion, while Nicholas Blake is portrayed as aloof and utterly closed to the idea of anything other than the official line.
But though the production bows to certain dramatic conventions, it is not heavy handed Ralph’s play is layered and open to some of the contradictions that surround the case (such as Swann’s refusal to share his forensic findings with the Blake Review).
What it does very successfully is to show just how many questions there are that have yet to be answered in anything approaching a satisfying manner there hasn’t been an independent public inquiry, despite repeated calls for one. This is a potent, angry but level-headed piece of theatre, strongly performed by all involved, particularly Ciaran McIntyre as Cheryl’s father. It leaves its audience frustrated and weighted with the feeling that the real truth might never penetrate the wall of silence.