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Intense, versatile and handy with an American accent, actor Lucy Ellinson has become a virtual fixture at Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre since Yankophile current boss Christopher Haydon took over. Now she’s probably earned herself another few gigs with her blistering turn in this Gate-produced UK premiere of George Brant’s monologue ‘Grounded’, which runs for a season at Edinburgh’s Traverse before heading Londonwards.
Ellinson plays a woman simply referred to as The Pilot, a US Airforce pilot and all round American badass whose uncomfortably callous attitude towards the Iraqis she’s employed to zap is somewhat ameliorated by her irresistible freedom of spirit.
But then, while on leave she gets pregnant and takes time out to have her daughter. Upon reporting back to work, things have changed: she is reemployed as a drone operator, working far from the theatre of war in Las Vegas, where she spends 12 hours a day remote controlling a killing machine that flies high above the skies of Afghanistan.
For all that drone warfare is a hot button issue, and for all the care Brant has taken with his research, ‘Grounded’ isn’t really about drone warfare so much as the technologisation of modern life. The Pilot goes from being a creature of the ‘the blue’ – her word for the sky – to one of ‘the grey’, staring at a monochrome screen 12 hours a day, occasionally experiencing a mad, aggressive rush of adrenaline as she blows up strangers thousands of miles away. And she can’t decompress, going home to stare at a TV screen with her husband, whose own life has taken a peculiar rhythm, working unnatural hours in a casino, spied upon by drone-like security cameras.
It’s a fine, thoughtful and empathic piece of writing. But the chief asset of Haydon’s production is undoubtedly Ellinson: her early, boisterous lack of inhibition is utterly beguiling, and her drift into brooding introversion is subtle and troubling.
There’s also great work from designer Oliver Townsend: his gauze cube set initially looks like a cool piece of abstract design, but its true significance become apparent at the end, a nifty sting in the tale to this urgent hour of theatre.