Area 52 opens to reveal a small, dark military hangar, occupied by two men previously unknown to each other until now. Corporal Theodore has been sent to the hangar to carry out his duty alongside Captain Milo, the latter of whom has been stationed there for what appears to be a long period. The identity of what they are guarding is unclear, and the Corporal does not waste time questioning his companion about what exactly this could be. It becomes increasingly apparent that an alien lifeform might be in some way connected to their mysterious circumstance, and as the scenes roll through, this possibility and others are explored from various angles.
The Tristan Bates Theatre is rustic and simple, lending itself well to the setting and plot of Area 52. The audience find themselves sitting in a completely black studio, akin to a small, claustrophobic hangar in which the characters were themselves confined, with the small, square space they occupied illuminated only by a yellowing, artificial light. It doesn’t take long for the viewer to absorb the stifling solitude of the environment, and the minimalist set (a good call from stage manager Allie Hunter) assists in communicating the sense of sheer and utter boredom that long-serving watchmen have to endure. As the plot develops, the characters consistently seat themselves back at the chess set at the room’s centre, with it being the only marker of logic amidst an ever-developing web of strangeness and unexplained goings-on, with moments reminiscent of Waiting for Godot. Indeed, as the plot thickens and the characters’ reality becomes clearer, the audience may feel as though the room is shrinking, enveloping them in the claustrophobia of the characters’ situation – unable to get out, potentially trapped underground with a dangerous, unknown creature.
There were several comedic moments, mostly deriving from the sheer exasperation of the Corporal upon questioning the apparently resigned attitude of the Captain. The character dynamics were constructed at a realistic pace, with the audience learning more about the two men little by little, whose personalities and manners could not be more different. JB Newman’s embodiment of the Corporal was an impressive watch, what with his character having many rapid adjustments in temper, and the occasional sudden moments of physical aggressiveness did not leave the audience anything short of suitably jumpy. Equally, whilst David Patrick Stucky’s character as Captain was more reserved, it demanded skilful projections of hysteria towards the end, preceding a terrific plot-twist whereby his manner must dramatically change.
Very often in drama (plays, TV, film), conversations seem to be written to sterile effect, purely for the convenience of the audience’s understanding, or to move the action on faster – which can often make dialogue feel false. However, this script was quite the opposite; surprisingly realistic and highly relatable. The idea of questioning the unexplained is explored fully in Area 52, with the Corporal never failing to ask, why and what? What are we guarding and why are we guarding it? Each conversation picks apart the dilemma. It was like being a fly on the wall to a conversation between two men on the bus – completely genuine; frustrated, inquisitive, amused, unsettled… In fact, I actually forgot I was watching actors on a stage.
So striking was the plot that I am still thinking about it today – a definite must-see, and a debut victory for writer and director Marc Blake.
Reviewed by Laura Evans
Area 52 plays at Tristan Bates Theatre until 13 August 2016 as part of the Camden Fringe