A question of character

The deaths of four soldiers at Deepcut army barracks have inspired a compelling play in this year's

I only allowed myself to say it a few times, but I admit I enjoyed it: "I'm in a play, you know. This summer, at the Edinburgh Festival." Then, to clear up the confusion: "Hahaha no, I'm not acting. I'm a character in a play. You know, there's a character called Brian Cathcart, and it's, uh, me."

Call it my David Frost moment, because I bet Sir David dined out a few times on the news that Peter Morgan was turning his Nixon interviews into a West End drama (though I don't suppose he had to put up with the sniggering disbelief that tended to greet my little announcement).

Anyway, it's true, and I was there in Edinburgh on the opening night to see the marvellous Robert Bowman (credits include the RSC, the National and the Royal Court) stride vigorously on to the stage of the Traverse Theatre, being me. "One of the reasons I'm a journalist," he/Brian/I announced, plonking down a great box full of documents, "is because of Watergate."

When Michael Sheen plays Frost there is a bit of an issue about the preening and mincing; I can say that is not a problem here. I don't think I do those things much (just as I haven't coined many nationally known catchphrases), but even if I did it wouldn't matter, because Bowman avoided the risk of mimicry by not meeting or speaking to me at any time before the opening.

Instead he cuts a businesslike figure on stage in a way that might surprise many who know me, and exudes a confident energy that leaves me a little wistful. Yes, he is a younger man than I.

Frost says he stopped thinking about Sheen being him after about 20 minutes of Frost/Nixon, but with me it didn't take nearly that long. The play - Deep Cut by Philip Ralph - was simply too compelling and distressing to allow daydreaming, and I hardly remember giving a thought to Bowman-versus-me again until he caught my eye during the applause at the end.

It is a verbatim work, pieced together from transcripts, official documents, interviews and news reports, describing the experience of Des and Doreen James, the parents of Cheryl, second of the four young recruits who died from gunshots at Deepcut barracks between 1995 and 2002.

I can just about remember saying those words about Watergate to Ralph at a cafe in East Finchley, north London, at least two years ago. Although the place was noisy he had a recorder running and we talked for a couple of hours: it must have been hell to transcribe. My point was to recall that, during the Watergate scandal, the White House used to insist that everything had already been exhaustively investigated and there was nothing left to say, in much the same way as Britain's Ministry of Defence has kept announcing that the Deepcut scandal is history, when it isn't.

Ralph interviewed me (though I don't think there was any intention then that I should eventually make it into his dramatis personae) because I had written a lot about the case, here in the New Statesman, in the Independent and elsewhere. Some of "my" lines come from our conversation and some from articles - and, in a few cases, from a long study in Private Eye co-written with the Eye's Heather Mills (so Bowman, as me, actually speaks some of Mills's words). The overall effect, and Bowman's dramatic role, is to drive the narrative on and give context.

I noticed only one liberty taken: where I once wrote that journalism "messed up" in the coverage of Deepcut, Bowman says "fucked up". In rehearsal, "messed up" apparently sounded lame; I confessed I had been known to use the other word, so I wasn't going to complain.

The play, though, is the thing. If I was so swept up in it that I could forget there was a guy on stage who was supposed to be me, I don't expect anyone else to give it a single thought, and so much the better. Des James, the central figure, is an extraordinary man - calm, rational and yet always simmering with anger, but also with a rare ability to step outside his own story and analyse it as if it were nothing to do with him. Ciaran McIntyre captures these qualities brilliantly, though again without a hint of mimicry, while Rhian Morgan's Doreen is almost unbearably moving.

The Guardian, I noticed on the train south next day, gave it a four-star review, but the Telegraph, while it praised the acting, suggested the topic was more suited to a television documentary. Don't believe it. Those documentaries have been made and I've seen them all, but nothing I have read or seen in the six years since the Deepcut scandal broke has bowled me over like this play.

"Deep Cut" is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 24 August. For information and booking details, visit: http://www.edfringe.com

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Superpower swoop