Dave Armstrong has yet another comedy hit on his hands. Like his play, The Tutor, and the TV comedy, Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby, which he co-wrote with Danny Mulheron and Tom Scott, Kings of the Gym is concerned with education on one level but on another level, it goes deeper.
It all takes place in the tatty office of the physical education department of the low-decile Hautapu High School, which Dennis Hearfield's setting has captured perfectly.
Armstrong describes school gymnasiums as like "little man-caves - oases of testosterone where the PE teachers ruled the roost".
Ruling this roost is Laurie Connor. I have known teachers not unlike him, but I suspect none of these dinosaurs has survived the climate change caused by NCEA. Nevertheless, this comic anti- hero, played to perfection by Paul McLaughlin (pot-bellied, one-eyed, bombastic, cynical and very funny), doesn't quite belong to the "old school" like the antediluvian Mr Gormsby; he's too "Kiwi bloke" for that.
Both are figures of fun as well as thorns in the sides of the PC brigade, represented here by the Machiavellian principal, who is nicely underplayed by Ginette McDonald, and both represent aspects of the good things that have been lost in our brave new NCEA world.
Assisting Laurie is a young teacher, Pat (Richard Dey in a deftly understated performance), an ex-student of the school who has an honours degree in chemistry. He is seemingly lacking in ambition and content to play second fiddle to the man who helped him through an unhappy adolescence.
Enter the catalyst: lively 22-year-old training college student Annie Tupua (a spunky performance from Acushla-Tara Sutton), a Christian teetotaller, virginity pledger and Silver Fern. She brings out the worst in Laurie, who can't abide her belief in creationism; their fight about belief is one of the best scenes.
Annie brings out the intolerance in herself and in the others as well as the lesson we all have to learn about tolerance for other people's beliefs. The topical jokes hit their mark each time (for example, Novopay) but they make the rest of the comedy play out in a time warp. But who cares when the audience is roaring with laughter?
Kings of the Gym by Dave Armstrong, directed by Danny Mulheron, Circa Theatre, till February 16
- © Fairfax NZ News
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