Writer and Director: Marc Blake
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Somewhere between the end of proven scientific fact and complete imagination lies the conspiracy theory, an endless conversation about how a particular event occurred usually shrouded in officially endorsed mystery. Most notable among the big conspiracy theories of the 20th Century is the Roswell cover-up, the supposed discovery of alien life by the US army hidden in the Nevada Desert. Just what it was that was found we may never know, but Marc Blake’s new play Area 52, showing at the Tristan Bates Theatre as part of the Camden Fringe Festival, adds a new theory to the pile.
The difficult and unmanageable Corporal Theodore is told to report to Area 52 on guard duty, assisting the long-serving and loyal Captain Milo. Both men are locked together in a hangar with only a chessboard for company and instantly Theodore begins to rail against his confinement. As the two men get to know one another, histories, fears and ideas are shared, but what has happened to the dozen other men who’ve worked with Milo and what are they guarding beyond the wall?
Area 52 is Marc Blake’s first stage play, described as ‘Waiting for Godot meets The Twilight Zone’. It is a classic locked-room tale of two very different men finding common ground and beginning to yield their secrets. To some extent the overarching mystery of what they’re protecting is of less concern than the ways in which Milo and Theodore overcome their suspicions of one another and begin to develop a degree of trust.
Some of this works well and Blake wastes no time with unnecessary preamble, ensuring Theodore is asking questions and pushing for release from the start. The audience is never quite sure whether one, both or neither man is lying and as they question each other the power shifts to and fro across the physical and metaphorical chessboard, as they attempt to out-think each other. Yet, too much of this is highly repetitive relying on momentary spikes of drama that crumble as quickly as they are created, as one man pulls a gun on the other – this happens at least four times before you lose count – and quickly resolves back to the original conversation. And towards the end of what is only an hour show, this replication even becomes a little dull.
David Patrick Stucky’s performance as Milo is well judged, initially retaining a respect and faith in military authority that resents the laxity of his companion, but beginning to question the scenario by degrees as the absurdity of it is pointed out to him. J. B. Newman’s Theodore is pretty aggressive from the start and seems to grasp the peculiarity of the set-up instantly, with lots of stomping and kicking boxes to indicate his insubordination. But this pitch doesn’t really alter much during the performance, and while his Theodore is clearly mutinous, he’s not as physically threatening as the text implies. Both actors could also work on their military bearing, giving thought to a firmer posture and stance that would have been drilled into them as soldiers.
Blake’s play has a number of under-explored themes, which it could better utilise. The conspiracy theory angle hints at the two men being watched or monitored, which should add to the paranoia of the characters, while the final conversation about what it means to be human has added resonance in the army process of removing that with basic training, and more emphasis could be placed on how Theodore reacts against it.
While the idea that the men are guarding an alien is there from the start, the growing tension and atmosphere of fear could be better realised – especially as it currently sounds like a lion. Area 52 has an interesting set-up and good final twist that works nicely, but while the story leading to it has plenty of conspiracy, it also needs more variation in the drama to keep the audience on the edge of their seat and invested in these characters.
Runs until13 August| Image: Contributed