The Tutor

Maidment Theatre, Auckland

15/02/2007 - 10/03/2007

Centrepoint, Palmerston North

17/03/2007 - 14/04/2007

Production Details

By Dave Armstrong
Directed by Jonathon Hendry

Lighting Design by Brad Gledhill
Set by Rachael Walker

Auckland Theatre Company

Life is sweet for the Sellars. John is a self-made man – a hard-talking, hard-living, solo father on the fast track construction cash cow. His son, 15 year old Nathan, has everything – freedom, money, plus attitude and an ego to match. But enter Robert Holton, the Datsun driving, lefty liberal saving the world and Nathan’s NCEA grades and it’s an equation for chaos. As exam time looms, political correctness and right-wing consumerism go head-to-head. Three men on the collision course of life where the bonds of mateship develop in the most unlikely of places.

From the writer who brought you the stand out hits Niu Sila and Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby, comes this comedy of (bad) manners about parenthood in the fast lane.

Auckland Theatre Company

Pete Elliott
(or Jonathon Hendry on tour)
Eryn Wilson
Damian harrison

Theatre ,

1 hr 30 mins, no interval

Provocative satire perceptively pillories preoccupations

Review by Richard Mays 23rd Mar 2007

Centrepoint makes a boldly entertaining start to its 2007 season with this imported provocative gloves off satire. Playwright Dave Armstrong digs at we-love-to-hate issues like Aucklanders, especially if they’re filthy rich with more money than sense, members of the do-gooder PC brigade, and bratty smart-mouthed undisciplinable teenagers.

Former member of the underclass, John Sellers has a construction company, a house on Paratai Drive and thinks nothing of snorting ten grand’s worth of cocaine. He also has an unteachable son, Nathan who is running out of schools and continuing to fail. Enter Richard Holton, sandal wearing, "washed out Daihatsu driving hippy" and secondary maths teacher. Mission – to get Nathan’s grades up so dad can win his custody battle.

The Tutor contrives a multitude of cultural and value clashes while breaking most language taboos. Sellers, played by director Jonathan Hendry, is pugnacious, hedonistic, shrewd, manipulative, racist, sexist, opportunistic and prepared to spend what it takes to get what he wants.

Eryn Wilson’s mildly mannered PC tutor, who purposely teaches at a lower decile school, soon cottons on and finds that cash can buy principles. Meanwhile he has a fight on his hands with Damien Harris’ 14-year-old hostile, unco-operative, know-it-all and i-pod addicted Nathan.

While opening night didn’t quite spark on all cylinders timing wise, these are effective characterisations that make plenty of impact on Rachael Walker’s stylishly sterile set overlooking Rangitoto. This gritty comical warts-‘n’-all slice of Kiwiana manages to rise above stereotypical social perceptions while pillorying the preoccupations and attitudes of the well off white middle class.


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The characters get under the skin of usual stereotypical perceptions

Review by Richard Mays 23rd Mar 2007

Playwright Dave Armstrong has a real ear for what some New Zealanders really think. It’s what makes his play The Tutor a remarkable piece of contemporary comedy.

A traditional three-hander, with constantly changing alliances between the protagonists, Armstrong’s play scores with its incisive, and not for the faint-hearted dialogue. Director Jonathan Hendry plays nouveau riche, self-made Auckland millionaire construction tycoon, John Sellers. Single-handedly he has raised his son Nathan while building his business empire, but alas, the business is in far better shape than Nathan.

Hendry gives Sellers great licence as a typical self centred, hard drinking, navvy-mouthed, sexually prejudiced, racially bigoted, cocaine snorting, predatory and bullying individual, while still letting him enjoy likeable rogue status. In spite of all his shortcomings, Sellers is what most people, who weren’t his victims, would loosely call a rough diamond and a decent bloke.

On the other hand, the unmanageable 14-year-old abused-by-neglect Nathan is on high school number four and is a gorse thicket of cynical pubescent hostility. Failing at school is his way of getting his father’s attention, and if that doesn’t succeed, some sort of financial payoff. It’s a well-balanced portrayal by the much older Damien Harris who has the body language, slouch, glare and sullenness down pat, and gives great vent to the playwright’s gritty teen idiom.

Forced to remedy the situation, Sellers ducks hands-on responsibility and hires Richard Holton, a wishy-washy liberal, brown jumper wearing, politically correct maths teacher from a low decile Polynesian dominated secondary school. It’s a wonderful confrontation – rampant market capitalist meets down at heel embodiment of social responsibility and conscience. Now Nathan has two people to be antagonistic towards as the odds continue to change, and the stakes both financial and personal get higher for everyone.

Eryn Wilson’s tutor is nicely understated, accentuating the discomfort of the character out of place in the spotless barren luxury of Seller’s Paratai Drive environment, and underlining the compromises he finds himself making.

While the situation can’t help but look manufactured, and the ending approaching the fairytale end of the spectrum, what impresses is the way Armstrong’s characters expose their underlying attitudes in direct no pussy-footing around language. The characters get under the skin of usual stereotypical perceptions to reveal personalities who have hearts as well as agendas, creating great opportunities for laugh out loud upwardly mobile Kiwi satire.

I’m Richard Mays for NewsTalkZB Theatre Review.


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Unexpected twists

Review by John C Ross 21st Mar 2007

How can you teach algebra and stats to a ferociously hostile and cynical teen, like Nathan in this comedy, who’s already scorned the efforts of a whole string of schoolteachers and previous tutors? What could be making his rich Jafa father so obsessed about getting his son’s grades out of the E-range? What could be impelling the schoolteacher Richard to persist with such ostensibly futile tutoring?

Armstrong’s comedy negotiates these plot-challenges with abounding verve, humour, and ingenuity. Unexpected twistinesses of situations and characters prevent it from descending into the merely formulaic.

Performed in a free-flowing series of episodes without an interval, it sustains its rhythms adequately, and builds to a well-contrived climax.

This second production, recently launched in Auckland, of a play premiered at Circa in 2005, has come to Centrepoint for a season with quite a degree of smooth assurance already established. Jonathan Hendry has both directed it and taken on the role of the hard-bastard father John Sellars, hard-working, hard-bargaining, hard-partying. The crux for the actor is to show him capable of a little mellowing without losing his potency, and Hendry manages this.

Eryn Wilson’s playing of Richard the teacher is always as strong as it needs to be, and interestingly nuanced. Damien Harris as Nathan manages to convey his character’s changing from an intractable brat to something very different while avoiding having any stage of this change look easy, as he needs to, for the plot to work.

The single set effectively represents a costly Jafa lounge, with a costly view of Rangitoto.

This is an enjoyable show, at times rough and raw, yet always good value.


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A magnificent study of spiritual incapacity

Review by Peter Hawes 21st Mar 2007

The Tutor, on tour to Centrepoint PN from the Auckland Theatre Company, has been justifiably laden with awards and ecstatic reviews. It is the reigning Absolutely Positively Outstanding New NZ Play in Wellington and has been described as ‘hugely entertaining’ and ‘always good fun’ etc in crits wherever it has played. And deservedly, it is a cracklingly fine work.

Set in the high decile belt of Paratai Drive, it features a son’s low decile interest in education and a father’s vulgar attempts to buy him the acceptable knowledge of the three Rs that he himself never had. And in fact never needed, amassing fortunes through gigantic deals manipulated by `fucking good lawyers.’ Ostensibly John Sellars’ educational intentions for his son Nathan stem from the threat of loss of custody to a much-despised wife. If grades do not improve then Nathan will be re-possessed – and John Sellars’ property don’t get repo’d, okay?

But just maybe there’s more to it than the loss of corporeal equity – perhaps there’s an inchoate recognition of the aridity of Paratai life; an inkling that anything that stimulates the brain does not necessarily come in through the nose. Just maybe he sees his ex-wife as more than a receiver in the bankruptcy of a nuclear family – she could be the sunderer of what may be, one day, a… relationship. In which father and son could have (as son hilariously points out they haven’t) quantity time as well as quality.

John Sellars is a troubled man as the lights go up on a set as luxuriously empty as the canvas in Art – the living room is simply a view of the only thing in the house without a price tag; Rangitoto Island. He has business troubles, but far more profound, the prospect of such jejune phrases as ‘I love you son’ being eventually uttered in this room, hangs over him till play’s end, even during the bawling, wheeler-dealing early scenes when father bribes son into embracing wisdom and son enthusiastically accepts the opportunity of intellectual improvement by upping the ante on every deal.  

He never does say it, and probably never will. Because this is not that sort of play. And it’s not about that sort of world. Playwright David Armstrong shows us the real John Sellars – the Sellars behind the mask – and that Sellars just doesn’t have the substance to break free of the lovely empty set he is locked in.

Maybe he momentarily thinks he can – for a while he is Iago working backwards (Sellars is played by Jonathon Hendry, one of our great Iagos), sliding insidiously down towards decency, love and humanity. But there’s nothing inside to guide him on; when it comes to being a human being he is unqualified. One of his last actions in the play is to not walk out the door. He’s a bit like the scorpion in the old story – trapped on an island in rising water, a frog offers him help – on the promise he won’t sting. Halfway over he stings. `What the fuck did you do that for?’ yells the dying frog, ‘now we’ll both die.’ ‘I couldn’t help it, it’s my nature,’ says the scorpion. Human nature is not in John Sellars’ nature. He can’t get out of his hedonistic world – but he can help others in. The tutor of his son, for example, whose shabbily noble values are eventually corroded and wrecked by undreampt of, and un-earned wealth. Paratai wealth.

The ending is as horrific as Hamlet’s. They’re all locked in that big white empty room – Hendry as Sellars, Damien Harris as son and Eryn Wilson as the tutor, Richard, whose philosophical Y-fronts could not withstand the heat of Mammon’s blowtorch.

Which is why I cannot understand the position the critiques of this play have taken. It isn’t ‘always good fun’ – it’s tragedy! It’s watching Basil Fawlty floundering through the nightmare world he’s created.

I didn’t see a play dealing with the issues of education, I saw a magnificent study of spiritual incapacity, eviscerating privilege, hollow desperation. The lines are marvellously funny, but then that’s what humour is – crushed-up wisdom. You breathe wisdom, you spit wit. John Sellars wasn’t ‘hugely entertaining’ you, audience dear, he was spitting on you.

A pompous bozo called Salman Rushdie once declaimed ‘you can’t write from hate, you can only write from love.’ He was, I think, in the midst of writing the book – Satanic Verses – which prompted an entire world religion to seek his death. That’s where love-led literature gets you.

We need more hate in our satire, and here it is – look again; John Sellars isn’t a dag or a loveable rogue, he’s a cunt. That’s what I got out of this `bright, immediate, hugely entertaining, accessible and engaging’ play.


nik smythe March 23rd, 2007

I'm not totally against the use of this word, although I would be hard pushed to use it in a review. When I do employ it, it has no reference to anything feminine, it's just the second most satisfying word to utter in times of anguish or stress. I gather Peter utilises it as a reference to what I gather is a liberal usage of the word in the play? I also presume that Zia's hopefully flippant request was based on more than Peter's fearless guttermouth.

Hugh Bridge March 23rd, 2007

Golly yes he did. Tis a pity to be sure. I like Hawes but think less of men who use this rich word as a term of abuse. I am even more mystified by women who condone it.

Dean Hewison March 23rd, 2007

Heh. He said cunt.

Zia March 22nd, 2007

Could all other reviewers please step aside and let Peter Hawes take over?

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Bright, immediate and hugely entertaining

Review by Kate Ward-Smythe 19th Feb 2007

In a city full of parents obsessed with which school to send their kids to, Dave Armstrong (an ex-maths teacher) delivers a fresh, frank take on the economics of education and parenting, through the eyes of three colourful male characters: John Sellers, a right wing self-made filthy rich businessman (brilliantly played by Peter Elliott); his teenage son Nathan (a solid performance by new-comer Damien Harrison); and his maths tutor, Robert Holton, a trendy-lefty teacher  (convincingly portrayed by Eryn Wilson).

Like his previous plays, Niu Sila and King and Country, The Tutor shows that when it comes to giving an honest voice to New Zealand men, Armstrong is one of our most engaging playwrights.

His dialogue is ripe with course language, anecdotes and attitudes that will make some squirm while most will belly-laugh, but according to the three teenagers I took on opening night, it’s the real deal: he’s nailed the vernacular of (and many of the core issues faced by) their peers and their parents.

More importantly, The Tutor gripped these guys (one of whom had never been to the theatre), for a solid 90 minutes, as Armstrong challenged political correctness, positive discrimination, left wing idealism, right wing market forces, family court, teenage cell phone dependency, the NZQA… even Kiwibank gets a grilling.

Underpinning this provocative banter, is a more fundamental issue between father and son: that money is no substitute for love, even though we all use and abuse it as our currency, our motivation, and few people are above bribery and corruption if the price is right. (Go on, deny it if you can.)

As Nathan hurls a barrage of pent up emotional punches and accusations at his father, John is left to contemplate his life and his parenting, in particular the priceless nature of quantity as well as quality time, making good on promises, and the value of listening.

Director Jonathan Henry has assembled an excellent creative team.

Rachael Walker’s set, John Seller’s Paratai Drive mansion, is suitably sterile and uber modern, with a bar as the major focus in the vast living room. Similarly, the Sellers’ costumes are well chosen. John wears his wealth from head to toe, with loud stripes on shirt, tie and trou’. Son Nathan is uniformed with attitude and even the hair has been given meticulous attention.  By contrast, Robert puts a low value on dressing to impress, with sandals, tatty trou’, jeans jacket and clutches an old brown leather satchel overflowing with brown manila folders.

Lighting Design by Brad Gledhill is appropriately clean, tidy and opulent, using halogens, spots, down light and chic domestic lamps, to make the living area look expansive and expensive.

With such a strong dynamic ensemble cast, Henry sets an energetic pace from start to finish, which – aside from the fact that all three actors were guilty of not pausing for the many audience laughs on opening night – suits the action very well.

The Tutor is bright, immediate and hugely entertaining. Because the pivotal character, Nathan, is written as an astute young man with nous, intelligence and insight, this is an accessible and engaging show for teenagers as well as a poignant eye opener for parents.


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