Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Theatre review: Grounded

A female fighter pilot flying missions in Iraq and Afghanistan is an interesting subject matter in itself, but it's just the starting point for George Brant's intense monologue Grounded. The Pilot (Lucy Ellinson) is at the top of her game, and in attitude as well as skill she's one of the guys. Back in the US on leave, she finally meets a man who's not intimidated by what she does, and their love story leads to marriage and pregnancy. But the latter isn't compatible with flying jets in a war, and when she returns from maternity leave the Pilot ends up doing the same job in a very different way: Her new plane is a remote-controlled drone, and while it surveys Afghanistan she's in a different desert, doing 12-hour shifts in a trailer outside Las Vegas, and at the end of the day she can go home to her family.

Despite her initial embarrassment at being made to join the "Chair Force" the Pilot soon finds the positives in being able to commute to war. But a variety of factors start to make the lines between her home and work life blur.

Christopher Haydon's production places Ellinson behind the see-through gauze walls of a small room (designed by Oliver Townsend) and the actress is there when the audience arrives, surrounded by flashing lights and loud rock music, surveying the audience like a video game avatar waiting for the game to start. This divorce from the reality of what happens when she presses her joystick, combined with the gung-ho attitude of an American soldier cheering as she blows up the "bad guys," makes for quite a disturbing setup. But the core of the story is in how it's the very fact of her returning home every night, which should humanize her, which actually makes it harder to cope. Brant suggests, not unreasonably, that war isn't a job you can leave behind in the office, and that the armies spending months together away from home have evolved coping strategies. Technology may be moving too fast for people to really know how to deal with it, and reducing the enemy to a grey blur on the screen opens the door to tragic mistakes.

You need a strong actor to carry a monologue and Ellinson is predictably outstanding, to the point where it's hard to separate the play's virtues in its own right from her performance. She embodies all the contradictions the script demands: Her Pilot doesn't come across as less of a woman for all the stereotypically masculine traits she exhibits, even as she bemoans her daughter's insistence on playing with typically girly pink ponies. As the "Eye In The Sky" tracking the movements of jeeps in the Middle East, she becomes increasingly paranoid in her private life about others spying on her in the same way. And she manages to get laughs from the start and keep the audience's sympathy despite the casual attitude she begins to have over taking lives thousands of miles away. For all its topicality and the complex issues it raises, Grounded boils down to the story of a woman broken by having her blue sky replaced with a grey screen.

Grounded by George Brant is booking until the 21st of September at the Gate Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes straight through.

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