Gate Theatre’s production of Grounded by George Brant touches down at West Yorkshire Playhouse this month. It is a soliloquy in the life of a hot shot F-16 pilot who becomes a lover and mother during a war of nerves. Grounded is an unconventional tale of a bird whose wings are clipped, whose expectations fall down to earth and whose social freedoms become restrained. In all, the title of the show encompasses every literal meaning of the word.
The performance takes place within a four meter gauze cube. Lit from beneath is The Pilot, a determined young woman in a flight suit awaiting instructions. Constrained within the small space, she tells the story of her dream career, busy social life, mismatched partner and unexpected daughter. Space and place is vividly realised through backlighting and sound effects design, presenting a vivid pallet to George Brant’s script. Entrapping the show within a small arena, the leading performance becomes an intense focal point for the audience, contrasting the airy freedoms of flight with the contraints of being grounded and remotely controlling a drone aircraft. The show’s theme of living and expericing life vicariously, whilst compartmentalising identities, is visually potent through its imaginative direction in production and lighting design.
Brant’s writing is direct and distilled, using an economy of words to tell a story punctuated with technical and emotional detail. The Pilot is characterised beautifully with Americanisms and thigh-slapping enthusiasm, counterpointing the depression and despondence which is to follow. With a relentless pace, the show also examines the change in practice of modern warfare, where strike action becomes a compartmentalised, office-based affair; a day job where fighters return home to the domestic sphere, attempting to readjust before returning to war the next day.
The Pilot is realised in an elecrifying performance by Lucy Ellinson. Sassy, hot headed and firecly opinionated with animal instincts, the character feels large enough to fly free from her gauzed cubical like a caged bird. Ellinson brings energy and aggression to the role, sustained through short vignettes which flip between ecstatic highs and crushing falls. Self-effacing yet constantly determined, The Pilot is a character whose complexity is beautifully realised through subtle mime and even occasional dance, effectively shifting location between cockpit, kitchen, dance floor and desert. Ellinson’s presentation of conditioning as an operator, as opposed to a free-thinking pilot, is expertly handled; her distant stares into the blue of the sky giving way to the greys of a display are psychologically chilling moments.
Short, swift and sharp, Grounded is a cutting and stealthy piece of modern theatrical drama. Prescient and enlightening, it takes its audience into a hellraising tailspin of emotions and experiences. Entertaining and insightful, it asks as many questions as it offers answers, promising a highly visceral experience. Enjoy the flight.