On 6th March 1988 a group of SAS men ambushed three IRA members (Mairéad Farrell, Sean Savage, Daniel McCann) on a petrol station forecourt in Gibraltar and killed them. .The British soldiers shot McCann five times, Farrell six times, and Savage, a 17-year-old who bolted towards the town centre in panic, sixteen times. The official version of the story, which was given out to the media immediately, was that they were armed and about to trigger a car bomb. It was soon evident that they were not armed, and there was no bomb (although 56lbs of Semtex was later found in another car, in Spain, to which Ms Farrell had had the keys). There was no forensic examination by the police, and no police photos were taken. The whiff of a cover-up was in the air, and the unsavoury smell of a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy which was designed to take out IRA members regardless of the niceties of law. Nevertheless the inquest jury returned a majority verdict of ‘lawful killing’.

Enter an investigative team from Thames TV’s ‘This Week’, who found a key witness, Carmen Proetta, who claimed to have seen the IRA members put up their hands in surrender as an SAS team with rifles leapt over the petrol station wall. The TV programme, Death on the Rock, relied heavily on her testimony for its impact. Later, questioned by the Gibraltar police, she admitted she could not have seen everything she claimed to have seen. Proella was vilified in a sustained attack by the British Press (“Tart of Gib” – Sun headline) and later won substantial damages. Nevertheless the programme had a huge impact on public opinion; it lead to Thatcher coining the phrase “trial by television” and subsequently to Thames TV losing its franchise – Thatcher was a great one for nursing grudges.

‘Gibraltar’ rakes over these events through the eyes of two journalists, Nick and Amelia. Nick is an old hand, investigating drug smuggling organised from the Costa del Crime which may or may not finance the IRA. He pays for his information from rather tainted sources, epitomised by Tommy, a shady Glaswegian criminal. Amelia is the callow novice TV researcher. Proetta (here called Rosa) talks to Amelia while refusing to talk to Nick. Why?

The questions multiply as to Rosa’s motives. She is a court interpreter working in Gib and Spain, on familiar terms with cops and gangsters alike. Much is made of the corruption of the legal system and her ability to do deals for her dodgier clients. If drug money is getting back to the IRA, could she too be working for them? Or is it a double bluff? Is she a double agent working for the British? Why did she not come forward to the police earlier? Why does she stick to a story which is contradicted, at least in part, by other witnesses. Ultimately the play offers no answers, only speculations. In a postscript however it does have Rosa claiming that her action somehow contributed to the peace process which eventually led to the Anglo-Irish accord. (This is nonsense, in that negotiations had been going on for at least a year already at the time of the shootings.)

This is all immensely promising material. Why, then, is the drama so clunky? Partly it’s the script, which fails on almost every level. Authors Alistair Brett and Sian Evans have clearly done their homework – a dozen sources are credited in the programme – and the play bristles with facts. However, they are both confused and confusing. For example, both journalists take it for granted that the soldiers could not have jumped over the wall carrying guns. There’s a photo of the wall in the theatre programme – about a foot high. Likewise Rosa/Proetta’s later admission to the police that the wall meant that she could only see the victims’ feet. Pardon me? A low wall cuts off sight of the feet, not of the hands and torso.

There is much discussion between the hacks of the nature of truth, but facts and truth are not the same. Discovering one does not necessarily reveal the other. The play cries out for more context to generate emotion and serious dialectical drama. Why does a 17-year-old risk his life to join an armed struggle? If there is a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy, isn’t the suspension of civil liberties a price worth paying to prevent more loss of life? Impassioned argument would give emotional urgency, but here we have no sense of involvement with the issues, and despite the subject matter it is very hard to care about any of it.

This is not helped by the performances of George Irving and Greer Dale-Foulkes as the journos. Admittedly they have little to work with in their stilted, clichéd lines and no character beyond the most rudimentary Grizzled vs Callow. But Dale-Foulkes seems to be walking through her part , while Irving is extremely uncertain in his lines, at least in the first Act. Karina Fernandez and Billy McColl fare better in that they have more to work with, and Fernandez is a commanding stage presence.

There is an interesting and important play to be got out of the subject matter, and the issues raised still resonate. But ‘Gibraltar’ is not that play. A wasted opportunity.

Reviews by Peter Scott-Presland

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The Blurb

Gibraltar is based on the highly contentious shooting of three unarmed Provisional IRA terrorists by the SAS in 1988. It analyses a television documentary which looked into the shootings and the vicious press backlash following the programme. Hear how the Government got it wrong, how the press got it wrong and how television got it wrong. The play raises serious questions about the culture, practices and ethics of journalism. Its main character, Nick, is in pursuit of the TRUTH as a journalist adopting an ethical, as opposed to a sensational, form of journalism. Through him, we see how and why the media coverage of the Gibraltar shootings was hopelessly flawed.

Although based on fact, the dialogue is fictional apart from the accounts of the shootings given on television, what was said in the House of Commons, in the Gibraltar Coroner's Court and in police and magistrates' reports.

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