With Kings of the Gym, set in a decile-two school in what could be any one of our towns or cities, Dave Armstrong has hit the ground running. After the nationwide success of The Motor Camp, Armstrong could be forgiven if he hadn’t ticked all the boxes this time around, but he has. Triumphantly. Kings of the Gym is rude, subversive, full of bad language and hilariously wicked attacks on our over-earnest, politically correct culture, but what drives the action, and the four irrepressible characters, is not outrage but – wait for it – love.
Leading the team is Laurie Connor, played with glorious gusto, although maybe a little too much shouting, by Paul McLaughlin. Laurie is everything a gym teacher shouldn’t be – overweight, lazy, foul-mouthed (he has nicknamed his star soccer player, Xian Lau Ping, a Laotian refugee, “Chopsticks”), and addicted to gambling. But his affection for his ragbag collection of students, particularly special needs boy Dougan, shows where his heart lies.
Laurie’s offsider Pat, an affectingly understated Richard Dey, unambitious and disappointed in love, emerges at the end of the play as a man with considerably more to him than is revealed in his knockabout relationship with his boss.
Presiding over these two dysfunctional teachers is headmistress Viv Cleaver, described as tough, controlling and obsessively PC, but as played by Ginette McDonald (dressed in a vivid array of Maori motif shirts) she comes across as curiously hesitant, her constant obeisance to the gods of biculturalism seemingly at odds with other aspects of her character.
Into this potent mix of laissez-faire teaching and a headmistress pushing an overzealous curriculum comes Annie, a young born-again student teacher (a delightfully subtle Acushla-Tara Sutton), determined to implement everything she has been taught at college. The ensuing conflicts with the two resident teachers, particularly the evolution/creationism debate, are both hilarious and affecting, as Armstrong peels away the layers to show the emotions and life events lying behind strongly held convictions.
Armstrong’s ability to write a drama that is both contemporary (jokes about All Blacks and Silver Ferns jostle alongside cracks about Novopay and The Hobbit) and universal in its themes puts him at the top of the league table of Kiwi playwrights.
Imaginatively directed by Danny Mulheron, Kings of the Gym is a decile-10 play that should be seen by everyone who has ever questioned what it is to be a Kiwi.
KINGS OF THE GYM, by Dave Armstrong, directed by Danny Mulheron, Circa One, Wellington, until February 16; an Auckland Theatre Company production, directed by Peter Elliott, is at the Maidment Theatre, February 7-March 2.