Stage-to-screen review: Grounded

I didn't so much miss Deafinitely Theatre's revival of Grounded when it played at Park Theatre as actively choose not to see it: Not out of any dislike for the company, but because it was only two years since I'd seen the UK premiere of George Brant's monologue, and I knew there was no chance I could realistically watch another version without comparing it to Lucy Ellinson's extraordinary performance. Even another five years down the line it's hard to feel entirely unbiased towards Paula Garfield's production, despite it inevitably having its own identity because it makes the one-woman show a two-hander, or perhaps two one-woman shows happening concurrently: As part of Deafinitely's aim to produce shows that can be enjoyed together by D/deaf and hearing audiences, Nadia Nadarajah performs The Pilot's lines in BSL, while Charmaine Wombwell provides the English language version.

The Pilot is a woman who revels in the fact that her job as a fighter pilot in Afghanistan is part of a traditionally masculine world; when she meets her future husband the biggest immediate attraction is the fact that he's excited rather than threatened by what she does. But one way she can't be the same as the men is that once she becomes pregnant she has to stop flying, and when her maternity leave's over she returns to a very different version of the same job: The planes are still in Afghanistan but they're drones that she pilots from a bunker in the Nevada desert, commuting back and forth from a Las Vegas suburb where she sees her family every day.

There's a lot going on in Grounded, from The Pilot's exchanging of blue skies for a grey screen, to the eerie gamification of very real war, to the paranoia of someone who spends their day as "the eye in the sky" assuming that there's always someone watching them too, to the idea that the rules and routines of the army help create a disconnected world that makes it easier to kill, and that mixing war with the banalities of real life make that disconnect increasingly impossible. Essentially it's a cocktail of influences that will wear down The Pilot's mental health towards an inevitably dark conclusion.

It remains a powerful piece and both Nadarajah and Wombwell's performances are strong, but they do essentially feel like two separate performances happening on the same stage: There's some nice moments where Garfield interestingly juxtaposes the two - Nadarajah signing while standing still centre-stage while Wombwell paces around - but compared to other Deafinitely shows, and indeed the way D/deaf performers and BSL are increasingly used in mainstream theatre, the two don't feel integrated in any singificant way. Still, Grounded does feel like an uncannily apt show for lockdown and working from home, in its evocation of spending all day in front of one screen for work before spending the evening in front of another screen for entertainment, the ability to connect with real humans atrophying away.

Grounded by George Brant is available during May on Deafinitely Theatre's YouTube channel.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

Stage-to-screen review: Grounded