Grounded arrives in London glowing from its ecstatic reception at the Edinburgh Fringe. With a Fringe First, a Stage Acting Award nomination and a litany of four and five star reviews, the Gate Theatre's production could hardly have a more vaunted homecoming to Notting Hill. The worry is always whether it can live up to the hype, or prove to be one of the many shows buoyed up by the Edinburgh bubble that falls far flatter away from the feverish excitement of the Festival.
The good news is that George Brandt's urgent new play has certainly survived the long train ride down South. A one-woman drama about an unnamed hot-shot US army fighter pilot – who returns to service after pregnancy only to be re-assigned to piloting unmanned drones from a base outside Las Vegas – the play's thematic ambition alone is striking. In a compact 65 minutes, Brandt takes in gender attitudes, the nature of modern warfare and the onset of the surveillance state.
Lucy Ellinson gives a powerhouse performance, at once likeable and discomforting as the gung-ho, devil-may-care, trigger-happy pilot whose journey from machismo to motherhood – and ultimately madness – plays out beneath a cool, cocky exterior that only occasionally cracks. Director Christopher Haydon brings pace, clarity and precision: staged on three sides, Ellinson's performance is locked in a grey box barely more than a metre square, gauzed on all sides, which contains both her movements and emotions so that even the smallest gesture or flinch is magnified with meaning.
At its best, this frequently lyrical and often painfully laconic character study captures both a compelling personal narrative and something much larger and more troubling for our military – and our society. Only occasionally does Brandt's political ambition over-take his characterisation, and our narrator's final descent feels just a little too contrived, too thematically neat. But in excavating the increasingly important implications of high-tech remote-controlled drone warfare, Grounded is vital viewing.
Far more than re-iterating the simple dehumanisation of a joystick-wielding army, Grounded offers much deeper, unexpected insights. For our narrator, the computer screen control room is the first time she sees the impact of her bomb strikes, having previously been long gone in her jet-plane when they hit home. She is also denied the soldierly camaraderie of the front lines, which new 24-hour shift patterns provide no space for. Most importantly, the new lifestyle allows her to go to war in the daytime and kiss her daughter every night. While this initially feels like a blessing, such brutal juxtaposition of family and military life and warfare is ultimately impossible to bear, forcing her to live like a civilian with the terrifyingly constant pressures of frontline warfare ever-present.