The deaths of four young recruits between 1995 and 2002 brought the Deepcut barracks in Surrey, and the British army, under public scrutiny.
A new play, Deep Cut by Philip Ralph, follows the story of the struggle of Des and Doreen James for truth and justice. They are the parents of Cheryl James, who died at Deepcut in November 1995 at the age of 18.
The three other young soldiers who died at Deepcut were Sean Benton, Geoff Gray and James Collinson.
Although the barracks were shut down in 2008, the legacy of bullying, cover-ups and injustice has remained a stark reminder of the army’s culture.
The army denied that there were any suspicious circumstances behind the deaths and claimed that they had all committed suicide.
Their families have since been battling for an open public enquiry, which the government has consistently refused.
Ballistics expert Frank Swann showed that it was likely that Cheryl James was trying to push the barrel of the gun away from her as she was shot.
Cheryl’s parents’ living room is the set of the play. The lighting and furniture change as the story goes on, highlighting the different characters as they deliver their side of the story.
Jonesy, a young woman soldier played by Rhian Blythe, shares her tales of Cheryl, and describes being at Deepcut when she died.
Other characters include the government coroner, Frank Swann and an investigative journalist.
The frustration of their long fight takes its toll on Des and Doreen James – the endless letter writing with no response from the military and the continuing refusal to launch a proper investigation.
Themes of sexism permeate the play, as women face stark oppression in the army.
When an officer comes to tell Cheryl’s parents of her death, Des is out at work. The officer refuses to tell Doreen and repeatedly asks for her husband. The news is not communicated until Des arrives home.
There were also allegations that senior male officers had sexually harassed Cheryl and made judgements about the way she conducted her private life.
Army recruitment propaganda tells people that life in the military is all one big adventure with paintballing and kayaking. It targets young working class people who lack opportunities.
It mentions little of the brutality of war or the physical, mental and emotional exhaustion and abuse soldiers face from their superiors or the strict hierarchy.
A survey by the Shelter homeless charity found that over a quarter of homeless people are military veterans. They suffer some of the worst mental health problems in the British population.
The play follows the unfolding story after Cheryl’s death by using verbatim interviews and other original material. Although this style can sometimes make a play feel cold or lacking in feeling. Deep Cut overcomes the confines of this method.
The characters are played in a sincere and heartfelt way, particularly that of Doreen James, brilliantly acted by Rhian Morgan.
A sense of realism and foreboding run throughout the production.
After several failed attempts at contacting the army, Des and Doreen agree to put all the files, correspondence and reports up in their attic, and try to move on with their lives.
But when another soldier dies in similar circumstances the files are reopened.
As Doreen reaches up into the attic – a suspended Perspex box above the stage – reams of papers fall down onto the set and remain there for the rest of the play.
The impression created is that the death of their daughter and the absence of any answers has seeped into every crease in the sofa and every aspect of their lives.
As the play concludes, the government makes its final statement, delivering an open verdict and refusing, once again, an open and public enquiry.
This play highlights the plight of ordinary people coming up against the state. It illustrates how far we have to go to reach real democracy and accountability in this country.
Deep Cut by Philip Ralph is on at the Tricycle Theatre, 269 Kilburn High Road, London NW6 7JR, tickets from £10, until 4 April. Go to » www.tricycle.co.uk or phone 020 7328 1000