A review of the play “Deepcut” written by Phillip Ralph and performed at the Edinburgh Festival


deepcutfaWritten by a Welshman, from the valleys, about a Welsh soldier, also from the valleys, who died from gunshots from  her own  weapon while on guard duty at the railway gate of Deepcut garrison, perhaps more commonly known to the soldiers who served there, as Blackdown.

As a piece of theater it is at once, disarming and persuasive, mostly because it is told through the ordinary conversation of the parents of the young soldier.  She, Private Cheryl James, was their adopted daughter.

They are the loving parents. Kind, slightly embarrassed in their grief, shocked by the nature of her death and who cannot accept that their dear dear daughter, their child, their dear child soldier, would take her own life.  They are the universal parents of all soldiers.

They speak to us from their front room, especially tided up for us, who are there more in the way of guests or neighbours rather than as an audience.  It is an ordinary house in an ordinary estate in an ordinary valley of ordinaryWales.  There is a photograph of Cheryl on the mantelpiece, and they remember her to us, her adoption, her mischief, and her character – how proud they were when she became a soldier – it is again, universal.  We all experienced it as soldiers, some of us as parents too.

Blake appears. Nicholas Blake Q.C.  It was he who carried out the investigation into the deaths of four young recruit soldiers, each who died by their own weapon, all at Deepcut.  He explains his enquiry, the evidence, his conclusions; he appears several times to add to the narrative of the parents as we listen to their story unfold,  from the settee of the front room of Cheryl’s family home.

A reporter appears, from the BBC.  A campaigning reporter, who refuses to believe the “official version” and encourages enquiries and investigations which clearly unsettle the parents.

Swann appears.  Frank Swann, the forensic specialist who, commissioned by the parents of the four dead soldiers, conducted such forensic investigations as where open to him, and tests of weapons, and who bluntly concludes, that they, the four soldiers, including Cheryl Jones, were each murdered.

Swann is difficult to understand.  Oh he is blunt enough in his conclusions.  But he refuses to give his report to the Blake enquiry, refuses to engage with Blake on the conclusions he has reached.  He does so because Blake’s enquiry is not a public enquiry and Swann believes it to be a cover up.

But the parents engage with Blake.

One is forced to question the professional appropriateness of Swann’s refusal to engage.  Forced to ask who in fact owns the forensic report, for if the parents commissioned it then surely it belongs to them.  If the parents engaged with Blake then why hold back their own commissioned forensic report.   But Swann claims the report  as his and refuses to cooperate with the enquiry.

Blake’s enquiry is examining the army’s duty of care in the four deaths.  The parents, Swann and the BBC, are all questioning the army’s duty of care.  But the forensic report is withheld from Blake’s enquiry.  Blake cannot therefore assess the independent forensic report, can not take its conclusions into account.  Clearly he cannot rely upon second hand versions of the report, newspaper versions of the report.   He has no report; either to dismiss or approve.

So you are persuaded to be sympathetic to the dilemma of these ordinary parents of an ordinary soldier,  in their challenge to the official version,  but are nagged, constantly, by their major tactical error of not allowing Blake’s enquiry access to their independent forensic material.   If the army’s duty of care is in question then so is the duty of care of the parents; and the duty of care of the forensic scientist.  Surely they should have furnished the report, surely they owe it, as a duty of care,  for their dear dead child, and they owe it too,  to all the other soldiers who go through Deepcut or elsewhere.  And Swann, he cannot complain about the army’s duty of care when he refuses to engage in an enquiry or release his report.  Where, one is obliged to ask, is his own professional duty of care?

A soldier appears, Private Jones, a close friend of the deceased Cheryl.   She tells us of the drinking and the sex at Deepcut, of the training routine.   She could be simply out to add to its “notorious” reputation.  But she doesn’t.  For all that happened she enjoyed Deepcut.  She tells us that “Deepcut made me”

What a phrase.  “Deepcut made me.”  How it might resonate with those countless number os soldiers who, through the years, marched across it’s parade grounds!

I went to the play sceptical.  Like a lot of ex soldiers I don’t mind slagging the army off, but get defensive when someone else does.  Especially when they have never served.  I have a love hate relationship with my service as a soldier.  I want to defend Deepcut for the bits I loved and condemn it for the bits I hated.

I discovered some of the changes of Deepcut.  Basic training for soldiers now takes place at Pirbright.   That’s were all the square bashing,  double time,  shouting,  route marching bullshit takes place.  Deepcut is now a trade training centre.  It ought to be run more as college than a basic training depot – albeit a military college.  But it wasn’t.  It was double time square bashing bullshit.   Private Jones compared it unfavourably with the Engineers trade training units which, according to her, were much more like military colleges than regimental depots.

It was powerful moving stuff.  But I was not persuaded by the drama of the presentation that the soldiers were murdered.  I was however persuaded that a public enquiry is called for.  Not for Swann the forensic scientist.  Not the reporters. Not even for the parents.  For the Army.  The Army needs a public enquiry.  It’s big enough to live with the hassle, big enough to deal with the result.   I note that in Northern Ireland the government have spent some £400 million on the bloody Sunday public enquiry.  They can afford two or three million for Deepcut.  The Army deserves it.

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One thought on “A review of the play “Deepcut” written by Phillip Ralph and performed at the Edinburgh Festival

  1. It might be good to correct the surname of Private Cheryl (Jones or James) – as this is quite an evocative story. This piece loses credence when the main character’s name is spelt differently….

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