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CRITICAL STAGES CAPTURED WITH INTELLIGENT AND CREATIVE FLAIR

Print Version

KINGS OF THE GYM
by Dave Armstrong
directed by Danny Mulheron
Producer: Howard Taylor

at Circa One, Wellington
From 19 Jan 2013 to 16 Feb 2013

Reviewed by John Smythe, 20 Jan 2013


If you've assumed, as I did on first seeing the title, that Kings Of The Gym is about testosterone-pumped blokes competing, preening and posing, it's not. Far from it. This gym and the Head of Phys Ed's office, which overlooks it, are the grungiest part of low-decile Hautapu High School and its titular ‘kings' excel only at under-achievement.  

Once-promising rugby flanker (in 1985) Laurie Connor, played with down-to-earth relish by Paul McLaughlin, is very unfit – in more ways than one, it seems: a question that lies at the heart of this play. Referred to more than once as “a dinosaur”, he is scathing of a new New Zealand Curriculum that values participation above winning and swamps him with its bi-cultural perspective. As for his personal life, his most intimate relationship seems to be with a TAB call centre woman, whom he has on speed-dial.

Laurie's mysteriously loyal junior and ex-pupil, Pat Kennedy, crafted with much subtle perception and under-played wit by Richard Dey, is clearly operating way below his potential, as a teacher and in life. Is he badly done by or doing it to himself? Is he keeping safe or hiding out and ripping himself off? Revealing the whys and wherefores of this is also central to the play's well-wrought structure.

Battling with these circumstances, her Board of Trustees and the Ministry of Education to elevate Hautapu High's low academic performance and reputation, not least by attracting good staff, is ex-science teacher, now Principal, Viv Cleaver, referred to as “Cleavage” by ‘the boys'. Ginette McDonald is beautifully modulated in this role, distilling delicious comic moments from their all-too-human situation.

Into all this, thanks to Viv's “very good friend Robyn at the College of Education,” comes bright young student teacher, netball player, sports all-rounder and committed member of the Redemption Church (think Destiny Church), Annie Tupua. Acushla-Tara Sutton's truly splendid performance exemplifies the confidence of idealistic youth until unexpected changes and challenges expose her vulnerability and see her – and others – mature significantly. 

Indeed Armstrong ensures all the characters experience a full range of emotions and – directed by the ever-astute Danny Mulheron – all the actors step up to the proverbial mark as individuals and as a team. 

Having created the high school TV comedy series Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby (2005 & 2006), followed by the stage plays The Tutor (2005) and The Motor Camp (2011), Kings of the Gym is the next education-themed Armstrong/Mulheron collaboration.

Promoted as “PC v PE!”, it continues the tradition of trading in humour-of-unease by appearing to pick on a special needs student, Dougal, and a Laotian high-achiever dubbed “Chopsticks” because Laurie can't be bothered learning to pronounce Xiang Lao Ping. Maori phrases and protocol come in for the usual ribbing too, and Laurie's inability to reconcile sport with the arts in the proposed new complex gives rise to lampooning the very art we are witnessing.

But all that is part of the means to a greater end. In his programme note Armstrong calls it “a play about the battle for the soul. We all think we are tolerant, but deep down many of us want everyone else to think just like we do.” Not that his characters proselytise as such; the conflict comes more from their resistance to each other's values and hidden agendas, and from the human tendency to cling to comfort zones rather than risk further hurt or failure.

The fates of Pat and Annie – at the starts of their careers and situated between the students in the gym below and the more set-in-their-ways Laurie and Viv above – are of special interest. Both have had a tough start in life and both have found support in very different places which, while doubtless ‘saving' them in the short term, may or may not serve their longer term interests.

While Laurie appears to have consolidated – as in solidified – his position, Viv continues to strive for something better. And they all believe their way is valid. All the characters are flawed and all have their good points. No-one speaks for Armstrong – and no-one doesn't either. It is a great strength of his writing that he is not telling us what to think but is asking us to think as well as feel for ourselves.

The dramatic eruptions are surprising, provocative and confronting, demanding we reassess some of the judgements we will inevitably have made and inviting us to determine where we stand on the questions raised, about life choices, teaching styles, education policy, religion, gender politics, confronting change and taking charge of one's own destiny.

The laugh-out-loud moments, of which there are many, cannot be detailed without giving the show away. Suffice to say the comedy is largely well earned and deftly executed.

Gillie Coxill's costume designs hit the button in every respect. Dennis Hearfield's set, lit by Glenn Ashworth, looks thoroughly lived in: the authentic lair of a gym-teaching ‘dinosaur'. We have to squint a bit to believe the back wall is a gym-width away and the uncredited sounds ‘off' don't quite create the illusion of students at play a floor below, but overall the visual effect evokes a very recognisable reality.

While Kings of the Gym is perhaps not the ideal title, the play itself and this world premiere production captures individuals and our society at critical stages in their evolution with intelligent and creative flair.

An excellent start to the year for Circa Theatre. 
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See also reviews by:
 Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);
 Laurie Atkinson (The Dominion Post);
 Fiona McNamara
 Laurie Atkinson (The Dominion Post);