By Dave Armstrong; Directed by Peter Elliott
Auckland Theatre Company
Maidment Theatre, Auckland | February 9-March 2
The sight of a school P.E. office on the Maidment Theatre stage was enough to bring back awful high school flashbacks to dull-as-dishwater health lessons taught by teachers who didn’t want to teach them. Thankfully, the opening play of Auckland Theatre Company’s 2013 season is quite the opposite: it’s a Dave Armstrong comedy, a play that everybody sitting in the Maidment that night wanted to see badly, and a play I’m sure ATC was just as keen to put on.
Kings of the Gym centres on a low decile school P.E. department, where Laurie O’Connor (John Leigh) rules the roost with a defiantly non-PC iron fist. His style of teaching revolves less around lesson planning than getting the kids to actually play sports. Things change when overbearing principal Viv Cleaver (Bronwyn Bradley) brings in Annie Tupua (Cian Elyse White), a student teacher who comes armed with a College of Education-approved method of teaching that she sticks rigidly to. On top of that, she’s a Junior Silver Fern and a member of the Redemption Church. Throw in another P.E. teacher, Pat (Brett O’Gorman), who is doggedly loyal to Laurie while also dimly aware that he might be pitching below his station, and Armstrong’s education comedy is set.
The script is a fascinating beast to deal with. Undeniably funny and clever, it nonetheless feels like a play comfortably from the middle of last decade. It tangles with the New Zealand education system, ‘born again’ Christianity, and according to the playwright, tolerance. It’s a credit to Armstrong that when dealing with any of these issues, the play doesn’t take one side but allows each character to have their own beliefs without marginalizing them for it. The audience is another matter entirely. A lot of the jokes made at the expense of the barely-fictional Redemption Church were met with guffaws that felt more than a little mean-spirited from where I was sitting.
Structurally, the play is a bit lacking. It covers an indeterminate amount of time, though my guess is that it takes place over about six months, and most of the dramatic development is loaded in the second half of the play, where the life-changing revelations come almost as quickly as the jokes do. Again, credit to Armstrong for keeping the play light and moving along quickly even when it does get into surprisingly heavy territory, but some shuffling around of revelations might’ve done the overall narrative some good.
Leigh, O’Gorman, and Bradley deal with the comedy of their parts well, selling Armstrong’s funniest zingers with aplomb. However, when it gets to the character stuff, especially as the play builds and the stakes get higher, the actors lose some sense of the truth in their characters and at times seem to be playing just for laughs. Cian Elyse White has the most difficult role in the show; her Annie has to go through a large amount of changes in a relatively short amount of stage-time and a lot of the conflict centres around her. It’s fitting then that White is the anchor of Kings of the Gym. When the rest of the play moves into farce, White’s Annie keeps it grounded in humanity and dignity. For me, she’s the highlight of the show.
As mentioned, Rachael Walker’s set vividly evokes a P.E. teacher’s office, especially one reminiscent of low decile conditions. The small desks, cheap TV, and mess of paperwork look like they could’ve been taken out of any struggling public school. Ingeniously, the set even suggests the office resides above the gym, with large neon lights hanging behind windows made out of those wooden bars that every school gymnasium had. J.P M’Ginty’s sound design also evokes the world of the play well; we hear kids playing down in the gym even as the characters go through their own dilemmas. It’s a reminder that there’s a world outside of these characters, their jokes, and their struggles, and one that makes the play more rounded and full as a result.
It’s hard to be too harsh on Kings of the Gym. As a comedy, it does its job well. It moves along quickly, it’s smart, and it’s legitimately funny. As a piece of theatre, I wish it delved deeper and provoked more conversation but for what it is, it’s a fun night out. It should prove to be a strong opening for what promises to be an exciting ATC season.