LIGHT COMEDY RAISES PERTINENT SOCIAL QUESTIONS
KINGS OF THE GYM
by Dave Armstrong
directed by Danny Mulheron
Producer: Howard Taylor
at Circa One (return season), Wellington
From 18 Jan 2014 to 15 Feb 2014
Reviewed by Fiona McNamara, 19 Jan 2014
Laurie Connor (Paul McLaughlin) is King of the Gym. As HoD of physical education at Hautapu High School, he spends his days in the gym staff room, making bets through the TAB phoneline. His side-kick and former student, now PE teacher Pat Kennedy (Richard Dey), jokes with him over the occasional beer or goon of wine during the school day.
Principal Viv Cleaver (Ginette McDonald) has had almost enough of all this. The board wants to get rid of Laurie, and she doesn't want to see Pat wasting his potential and becoming the same as Laurie. Disrupting the boys' club in the gym, a new student teacher, Annie Tupua (Acushla-Tara Sutton), arrives. She, a rising netball star, diligent student and, though she hates to be a called, it a “Maori role-model” might be “just what Hautapu High School needs”. Then, when her strong Christian views interfere with her teaching Evolution in her second subject, Biology, we start to question whether this is the case.
It is certainly character rather than plot that drives this play. Each of the four actors gives a strong performance that has us both sympathising with and criticising their characters, while never missing an opportunity for comedy. In particular, McLaughlin, McDonald and Dey demonstrate excellent comic timing – with McDonald able to make the most straight-laced character into the comic role that Armstrong intends.
By the time the interval comes around not a lot has happened: I'm not yet particularly invested in the characters, but I've had just enough light laughs to want to come back for the second half. The script could be slightly restructured with less exposition and the main dilemma of the second act introduced before the interval – to draw us back to discover the outcome.
Much of the comedy comes from Laurie's crude humour, which leads to an interesting discussion with another audience member in the interval, about whether you can put a racist/ sexist/ ableist character in a play without the play itself being racist/ sexist/ ableist. You can, I think if you point out the characters' flaws, which Kings of the Gym does, but still many of the younger audience members, with whom I spoke, were uncomfortable that these comments were largely what the comedy was based on.
While the production is played for laughs overall, it does raise some pertinent social questions. Annie certainly cares about the students and wants to help them find meaning and love – though we question her promoting God in a secular school. Meanwhile, Viv represents the establishment and the importance of playing by the rules. She tries to rein in Laurie's behaviour, but her emphasis on results and ticking the boxes gets in the way of what really matters: the students' happiness and development.
In direct contrast to Viv, Laurie certainly doesn't play by the rules, but we can see the value in his laid-back, and perhaps more real, approach. We learn that it was Laurie who helped Pat as a teenager through his grief at loosing his father by putting him in front of a punching bag. It seems that this extends to the current students too; in the words of the ever-loyal Pat: “Laurie might have his faults but the kids love him.”
It is curious that Laurie, the most flawed character, ends up in some ways the hero, with both Pat and, surprisingly, Annie, who initially was very skeptical of him, standing up for him. While this at first seems a questionable message to end on, it does cause us to continue questioning the characters' attitudes long after the play ends.
Kings of the Gym is a light comedy that will get you laughing and questioning numerous different points of view that exist in New Zealand, with regard not only to education but also to each other and the world. It reminds us that we can't simply dismiss other human beings as “insensitive” or “unrealistic” – there can be value in anyone's approach.
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See also reviews by:
Laurie Atkinson (The Dominion Post);
Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);
Laurie Atkinson (The Dominion Post);