“A plane with no cockpit, a bird with no eyes”
Watching Lucy Ellinson perform is probably one of the greatest treats UK theatre has to offer us. There’s something about her searching directness that makes sitting in the audience of one of her shows a much greater act of participation that most of us are used to. Utterly unafraid at reaching out to every single person in front of her, the surprise of eye contact with you still feels uniquely special and something important is shared even in the seconds of that fleeting moment, even if you’re not quite sure exactly what it is. When it breaks, as it must, you feel bereft, craving the next one when it comes, and so it goes, pulling you entirely into the immediacy of her performance.
Perhaps not everyone has this same level of engagement with her, but I find it impossible to imagine that anyone could sit through Grounded and just feel like they had witnessed just another show. Playing at the Gate after a hugely successful Edinburgh run, George Brant’s monologue is a searing indictment of drone warfare but also a fascinating exploration of the struggle of balancing the experience of being a soldier in combat with the realities of family life.
Ellinson plays The Pilot whose career in her beloved F-16 fighter jet is curtailed when she unexpectedly falls pregnant on a leave. To stay in the institution that has provided the only life she knows, she becomes a drone pilot, working 12 hour shifts operating the remote controlled vehicles that patrol the skies above the warzones but finds herself wholly unprepared for the huge differences that becoming a wife and mother have made to her. Not only that, since she’s operating from a trailer in Vegas and going home every night, she’s confronted daily with the ugly incompatibility of the hot-blooded world of conflict and the relative normality of her newfound domestic situation.
Christopher Haydon has encased his performer in a gauze-covered box (design by Oliver Townsend) which heightens the already considerable intensity of the piece. We’re all caught in Ellinson’s gaze but simultaneously she is caught in ours, unable to escape from prying eyes, constantly reminding us what the drones facilitate. And she guides her audience as expertly as she guides her machine, taking us through intensely emotional peaks and troughs as a searching questions of modern warfare are posed.