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Dave Armstrong achieves NCEA standard with new play

Kings of the Gym by Dave Armstrong
Directed by Peter Elliot
Auckland Theatre Company
Maidment Theatre
Until March 2


The programme cover probably sums up the main themes of Dave Armstrong’s new play Kings of the Gym. It has a male holding a rugby ball, his legs apart towering over a young Maori woman with a netball. It nicely sums up the conflicts in the play of power, sexism and racism. 

He also adds ideas about education and religion as well.

It’s a religious joke which got the biggest audience reaction, a wave of laughter which drowned out the actors.

It’s when the young purity pledging woman who has been going on about preserving herself admits she is pregnant. Head of sport Laurie shouts “It’s a miracle”.

The Destiny Church look-a-like Pope Brian Tamaki I comes in for a bit of flak in the guise of Bishop Makamaka but Armstrong, who acknowledges he is critical of some fundamentalist churches also notes in the programme that “I got to work recently with a large number of Pasifika actors most of whom were devout church members … I realised I also had a lot pf misconceptions and prejudices about religion”.

So the play has all the usual satire, irony and mocking one would expect but there is also some serious stuff.

It has all the hallmarks of Armstrong’s recent plays like Le Sud and The Motor Camp, setting individuals with different moral and social perceptions against each other with hilarious results. He is master of both the one-liner and the elaborate witticism.

The play is set in the gym at Hautapu High, a low-decile school almost anywhere in New Zealand. The PE department is going through its NCEA changes with new curriculum and a new teacher.

There is HOD Laurie O'Connor, a politically incorrect but popular teacher, and his assistant Pat, who have to contend with the politically correct head, Viv Cleaver (Cleavage to the staff) and new face Annie Tupua, who is an up-and-coming Silver Fern.

John Leigh is perfect as Laurie, the old-style teacher bewildered by the caring, sharing ethos of the new curriculum when he is really only interested in instilling ideas of competition and winning, and the more important goal of keeping the kids out of his hair.

His social ineptness and his automatic default to simplistic labelling of students – the aspees, the downers, the refos (Asperges, Down Syndrome refugees), while Asians are a generalised “chopsticks”

Brett O’Gorman as Pat, Laurie’s sidekick who is trapped in his job, manages to convey the slight desperation, loyalty and liberalism of the more earnest teacher.

They are put in the shade by new teacher Annie played by Cian Elyse White, whose new holistic approach to teaching – participation and inclusiveness – is shocked by the department’s lack of a pedagogical structure.

White gives an impressive performance, expressing righteousness, dedication and naivety.

Bronwyn Bradley’s Viv has a folder full of sycophantic kia oras to use when appropriate, creates a complex character with a mixture of power, sexuality and sensitivity.

The play manages to cleverly combine a sense of the timeless gym (it could be set any time in the last 30 years) along with contemporary references to NCEA, charter schools and Novopay. There are perceptive insights and comments about the nature of teaching and assessment of pupils and teachers.

While the play revolves around the classroom, and teaching the core is concerned with human interactions and how individuals impact on others and how change is effected by people not just policies. 

Director Peter Elliot keeps the play taut and lively bringing together the cast and the design with real flair.

Rachael Walker’s set of huge climbing frames enclosing the down at heel office full of old furniture and the detritus of the PE department captures a real sense of place.

More by John Daly-Peoples

Comments and questions

Dave Armstrong is right in touch with NZ society. I had a bloody good laugh last night. He is a great entertainer. If you want a good laugh get along to it before it closes.

Sounds like an accurate reflection of Aotearoa!