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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Deep Cut interview

© Mark Fisher - published in The Guardian

Edinburgh festival: No easy ending

Can a play get to the truth about what really happened at Deepcut barracks? Mark Fisher talks to one private's parents

In November 1995, Private Cheryl James became the second of four soldiers to die of gunshot wounds at the MoD's now infamous Deepcut training barracks in Surrey. She was reportedly found in woodland with her rifle by her side, a single gunshot wound in her forehead. James, who was just 18 years old, had been in the army for six months.

More than a decade on - after two police investigations, one police review, one defence select committee investigation and one governmental review - her parents, Doreen and Des, are no closer to knowing exactly what happened to their daughter. "I used to refer to people who carry the opinions I carry today as cynics and conspiracy theorists," says Des, seated next to his wife at Sherman Cymru theatre in Cardiff. "The experience has made me extremely cynical of the police force, the government, the MoD and the establishment."

What is most striking about this genial pair - Doreen is a former nurse, Des a human resources director - is not their tears or their anger, but their simple desire to know the truth. Playwright Philip Ralph is on a similar quest, and he is currently telling their story in Deep Cut, a verbatim drama playing at Edinburgh's Traverse theatre. The work is a compendium of first-hand interviews, public statements and source material from soldiers, lawyers, journalists, forensic experts and bereaved parents.

Ralph, who took three years to distil all this into a play, was originally commissioned by the Sherman Cymru to write about the army. He soon found the story of James, born in Llangollen, north Wales, and decided it should be a piece of documentary theatre. "I let the story people wanted to tell me lead me to the play," he says. "I never asked a leading question and was careful to get people to tell me what they wanted to tell me. It's an important story. It goes into every area of the state: the government, the judiciary, the police, the army and the MoD."

The Deepcut deaths raise troubling questions as to whether these four soldiers took their own lives, as the official version has it, or whether they were murdered. "If it was suicide, what made these four children do it?" says Doreen. "There must have been something going on to make four apparently happy and healthy people do that."

The first death was that of Sean Benton from Hastings, who apparently fired five bullets into his own chest in 1995. James died less than five months later, weeks after her 18th birthday. Then, in 2001, came the death of Geoff Gray from Durham, with two shots fired into his forehead, at an angle unusual for suicide. The following year James Collinson, from Perth, died of a single shot through his chin. Although Des and Doreen initially accepted the army's version of events, they became increasingly perplexed. The coroner recorded an open verdict on James's death, but an army board of inquiry later decided it was suicide.

Media attention, including a BBC Frontline Scotland investigation, put pressure on the Surrey police to reopen its investigation which, in turn, was reviewed by the Devon and Cornwall constabulary. Finally came a review of all the official investigations by Nicholas Blake QC, who in 2006 concluded there was no need for a public inquiry, saying that "on the balance of probabilities" the deaths were self-inflicted. In Deep Cut, Ralph refuses to jump to any conclusions. "I do have opinions," he says, "but I wouldn't dream of telling you what they are. I've looked at all the available evidence in the way that Nicholas Blake did in his review. My ideas hold no more water than his. In my opinion, unless you were standing there when it happened, you don't know."

Deep Cut is not the only play to have been written about the barracks. In October, a dramatisation of the story of Geoff Gray - called Geoff Dead: Disco for Sale - will open at Newcastle's Live theatre. "The play is focusing on the parents' quest for justice, rather than speculating on what happened," says writer Fiona Evans. "They know their own children. They were such happy-go-lucky boys and suicide wasn't in keeping with the way their lives were going. They are adamant their children didn't commit suicide - so it follows that someone else killed them."

Des and Doreen are holding out for a public inquiry, but the lack of publicly available evidence means they can only speculate. Des believes the barracks were out of control. "Anarchy on the campus prevailed," he says, pointing to evidence of bullying. "It was subdued after the first two deaths, but it rose again in 2001 and 2002, when you have a similar situation: mysterious deaths and, more to the point, no investigation. That shows the culture in the camp is at the core of this."

For Ralph, the power of his play lies in its lack of an ending - the audience is left to wrestle with many unresolved questions. That's fine for an audience, but do the parents have any hope of closure? "Absolutely," says Des. "It is an appalling wrong, in a civilised society, that four kids can die and we can allow our government to dance around justice in the way that they have. I don't think it's something I can walk away from."

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