First published in The Times, Sunday March 13 2016
Firebrand, the theatre company based in the Borders, has a knack for identifying new plays that are destined to become contemporary classics. Recent work includes revivals of Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, which focused on guinea pigs in a drugs trial, and The Great Train Race, Robert Dawson Scott’s comedy about rival rail companies, both written only within the past four years.
George Brant’s monologue Grounded is even more spanking new. Having debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013, it has already gone on to chalk up an impressive number of productions around the globe and is in the process of being adapted for New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
Firebrand’s revival, created in partnership with Heart of Hawick and the Byre, is a compelling reminder of the play’s blend of pathos and high-octane theatrical adrenaline rush. Janet Coulson gives a fine performance as the unnamed F-16 fighter pilot who delights in being “alone in the vastness” of foreign skies, raining down missiles on minarets and concrete before turning tail for base camp. “I’m long gone by the time the boom happens,” she says.
Home on leave, the pilot surprises herself by falling for a gentle hardware store worker, who cries when she tells him she’s pregnant. Domestic happiness comes at a cost, though. She’s redeployed to the dreaded “chair force” with a new job as a drone pilot, enduring twelve-hour shifts staring at a screen in a freezing bunker in the middle of the Nevada desert.
At first she thinks she’s got it made – she can drop off her daughter at school and still go to work in her flight suit and continue to hunt what she calls “the guilty”. Gradually, however, the crystal clear images of faces and flying limbs she sees on her screen every day awaken a latent empathy, stirring nightmares and blurring the boundaries between everyday life and war.
Pic: Lindsay Ross
Richard Baron, the director, so immerses us in this mind cracking up that it becomes impossible not to identify with the pilot’s rising confusion, not least because Brant’s script subtly implicates its audience in the act of armchair war-gaming. Ken Harrison’s simple set design creates a strong sense of the claustrophobia of the bunker, at times interplaying with Simon Wilkinson’s lighting to evoke the blue skies and wide-open desert the pilot so craves.
The greatest praise should be reserved for Coulson, though, who responds to a challenging role with a simmering performance. At first a little breathless and staccato, she quickly relaxes into the terse, vivid poetry of Brant’s script, making us believe in and recognise this tough-talking woman, undone by the sense of moral responsibility that stirs – and then roars – inside her.