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  • Susie Conte

REVIEW - Grounded

Red Ryder Productions

An unnamed female pilot thrills in her job, up in the “blue” flying F-16s over the skies of Iraq, one of the boys, addicted to the rush of adrenaline and proud of her status. Macho and confident, her life is turned upside down when she finds herself falling in love and unexpectedly getting pregnant. She is grounded. She has her baby and at first she revels in her new life, but after 3 years she yearns to get back into her flight suit and back to herself up in the sky. But the world has changed beyond recognition in those intervening years, and the nature of warfare has adapted. F-16s are obsolete technology, she is told, she must now work in the “chair force”, consigned to Las Vegas to man a drone in the air in Afghanistan. She loses the “blue” and is stuck in a windowless room looking at the desert 7000 miles away on a “grey” screen. Gradually she regains her excitement for her job, and the white knuckles that accompany the adrenaline of war. This is a play about how this new world order affects servicemen and women. Drone technology allows them to linger on the aftermath of the bombs they drop and the human casualties affected. The distance doesn’t lessen the psychological impact to the pilots.

This is a searingly powerful play written by George Brandt in 2013 – the programme tells us there have been 60 productions worldwide in the 3 years since it was written, most famously Anne Hathaway was directed by Julie Taymor in New York last year to great acclaim. Brandt’s language is taut and funny and heartbreaking. There are some repetitive passages but they are a minor script concern. Emily McLean’s beautiful production at the Blue Room is a roaring success. Much is required of the actress to play this role and multi-award winning Alison van Reeken is mesmerising as the pilot. I was unable to take my eyes off her. Every flash of emotion was in her eyes and we live the rollercoaster with her. Standing on a small black stage with an occasional appearance by a black leather chair, the focus is all on Alison. Dressed in her flight suit and wearing big black army boots, we are drawn into her story and watch the emotional toll start to break her. She is not immediately a sympathetic character, but she turns into a 21st Century heroine.

The lighting here was crucial, mirroring the “blue” and “grey” that define the pilot’s life. Beautifully designed by Karen Cook, there are moments of genius. Quick fire scene changes are punctuated by a blackout and blinding light into the audience, by the time you adjust the next scene is lit and you don’t have time to think. You experience. There are video projections, designed by Mia Holton, behind the stage of the “grey” of the deserts and the bombs, eerie as there is no sound. When Alison presses the button, rendering a guilty verdict from across the world, there is a delay then a quiet “boom” from the pilot and we see a grey fire cloud cross the video. It is powerful imagery.

I happened to have watched a movie last week on a similar subject and theme called Eye in the Sky, released last year, about the legal, political and ethical dilemnas presented by modern drone warfare. The psychological toll on the drone pilots having to handle civilian casualties as par for the course is well explored. Grounded is the simpler story of this woman facing losing her identity, the debilitating juxtaposition of warfare and family, the disconnect of coming home in the evening to play pink ponies with her daughter while remembering the bloody body parts on a screen from the morning, and the role of being a woman, wife and mother while working in a male profession.

I would consider this a must see. Run, don’t walk!