On 6th March 1988 three IRA terrorists were shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar... straight after the British Government defended the killings in Parliament. The "Gibraltar Three" – Mairead Farrell, Sean Savage, and Daniel McCann – had been intending to detonate a car bomb on a square, and a gun battle had been necessary to stop them. However, it soon became known that they had been unarmed, and that the car in question did not contain the semtex. Notwithstanding these facts it still took an award-winning documentary to reveal the "truth" to the British public – when the IRA terrorists had been shot their arms had been up in the air in surrender.

This new play by Alastair Brett and Sian Evans examines how this case was presented by the press, who mostly supported the line taken by the British Government. Could the SAS have been sure the three were unarmed? Could they not have been about to detonate a bomb remotely? With respect to the bomb material soon being discovered in Spain, did this not just prove their intent? On the other hand, the documentary centred around the testimony of a late witness – it was through her that the IRA gained a huge propaganda coup. Her portrayal showed the SAS as Thatcher's lawless assassins. So where does the real truth lie?

Gibraltar as a play is not particularly dramatic, mainly because it concentrates upon presenting the issues. Indeed, it sometimes feels like another documentary. Geoffrey Howe, Foreign Secretary at the time, is shown on TV screens speaking in the Commons; there are accounts from the Gibraltar Coroner's Court; there are police reports. With the performances feeding off these elements, they feel quite stagey, not least in their delivery. But the fault lies with the script, rather than the actors or James Robert Carson's direction.

George Irving plays an experienced journalist, Nick, who has long been based in Gibraltar. He pays his sources to gain a firm understanding of its underworld including the IRA's involvement in Moroccan drug running, and MI6 "black-ops". He is fairly convincing in his cynicism and he is wise to refrain from drinking too hard. Unfortunately though, he is left to do too much exposition. Greer Dale-Foulkes plays opposite him, as the young Amelia. Amelia is the documentary-maker, who believes that her standards of journalism are higher. Ultimately, it is suggested that she may have been manipulated by the IRA. Dale-Foulkes is consistently solid in her role, although the role of the earnest investigator is a two-dimensional one.

The support actors were given greater challenges and both of them delivered. Billy McColl plays the drug runner Tommy with a nice mixture of menace and vulnerability. He is able to develop his character, in that we gradually learn about his past and about his being an MI6 informer. In various other small parts he shows great facility in switching between accents. Finally, Karina Fernandez intrigues as the elusive Rosa, the late witness in the documentary, whose motivations are never clear. In her inquest appearance she barely wavers in defending her integrity, yet a number of stories (tabloids) about her past cast doubts upon this.

Gibraltar features quite a few sudden changes of scene, which was was helped by Mike Robertson's imaginative lighting design. One moment the actors were in a Mediterranean daylight, the next they were in the gloom of an aquarium. The AV design was, unfortunately, less successful. From time to time images upon a set of TV screens set the scene for the action, but a shot of the rock of Gibraltar, for example, seemed awkward. 

Gibraltar works as an examination of whether or not the shooting of the "Gibraltar Three" was lawful. It explores all the theories of what happened upon 6th March 1988, whilst touching upon the moral dimensions. Where it is less successful is in its principal aim: the ethics of journalism. Much more emphasis is placed upon the documentary version of events – by comparison to tabloid versions, too much. The basic differences are repeated over and over, making the play not as nuanced as it might have been. All in all, Gibraltar is worth seeing for what proved to be a seminal moment in the history of The Troubles. Moreover, we leave the theatre wondering how much can we trust any of our news sources.

Gibraltar, at Arcola TheatreAndy Dickinson reviews Gibraltar at Arcola Theatre.3