Lord gym

By Dionne Christian

Dave Armstrong's new stage show is set in a 'scummy gym in a low-decile school'. Dionne Christian takes a look.

Actors John Leigh and Bronwyn Bradley (left and right) with director Peter Elliot (centre). Photo / Chris Gorman
Actors John Leigh and Bronwyn Bradley (left and right) with director Peter Elliot (centre). Photo / Chris Gorman

Peter Elliott, John Leigh and Bronwyn Bradley haven't even sat down before they start swapping stories about high school. Who got what in School Cert maths? Who left of their own accord? Who found PE classes the most tortuous? And why, so many years after leaving school, does it still matter?

Leigh sums it up most succinctly when he says that school days may not be the best of your life, but they are frequently the most formative and are usually populated by a classroom full of characters - teachers and students alike - you never forget.

"And that's why teachers are so important. We trust the future of our children to them, yet the way we treat them is insane. They're like nurses, in that society doesn't value them enough - they get paid so little for what they do, if they get paid at all [referring to the Novopay debacle], and we muck them around by changing our minds about what we want from them.

"With teachers, there are those who inspire you and make you think about the so-called bigger picture, while others will teach you what you need to pass and get the little slip of paper you need to get on in life.

Both types are valuable and have a role to play."

All of which will be music to the ears of the teacher unions and playwright Dave Armstrong. It shows that Armstrong's latest comedy, Kings of the Gym, in which Leigh has the lead role as PE teacher Laurie O'Connor, pushes buttons.

Set at fictional Hautapu High, Kings of the Gym is a satirical look at what happens when a progressive and ambitious principal (Viv "Cleavage" Cleaver, played by Bradley) determines to turn around a struggling school, but is faced by the intractable old-fashioned mindset of Laurie O'Connor and his sidekick, Pat Kennedy, played by Brett O'Gorman. They think kids should learn about life, harsh as those lessons may be, and not just what they need to pass exams.

Ask Leigh - best known for playing barmy arsonist Sparky on Outrageous Fortune and mild-mannered cafe owner Lionel Skiggins on Shortland Street - if he ever expected to play a PE teacher and his response is cheerfully self-deprecating.

"No, I never saw myself as a PE teacher, but he's let himself go a bit which is perfect for me, really."

Armstrong acknowledges a number of his plays have been set in or around schools - even last year's The Motor Camp dealt with education or lack of - and says it used to concern him but he's relaxed about it now.

"I'm writing about what I know. I'm an ex-teacher and the issues that are involved in education and the institutions themselves are great settings to explore things about the world we live in.

"We've all been to school - we all have first-hand experience and opinions on education."

It might sound like we've seen and heard it all before - liberal and conservative educators try to teach each other a lesson - but Armstrong says there are a couple of twists in Kings of the Gym.

He's written his first committed Christian character (Annie Tupua, played by Cian Elyse) and there's a stronger romantic comedy element than in previous works.

"It's the first time I've written a religious character and while there are a lot of plays which dump on Christianity and religion, I didn't want to do that because I didn't want the church or religion to be seen as a bad force.

"It considers politics and education - what we want for our kids - but also wider issues such as tolerance. Ultimately, it's like most of my plays in that it's trying to work out how we can all get along better," he says.

And setting it in the "scummy, dirty gym of a tawdry and failing low-decile school" made it all the more challenging to write a romantic comedy.

Peter Elliott, who starred in Armstrong's The Tutor and now makes his directorial debut for Auckland Theatre Company, says there are no clear "villains" or "good guys", which mean the audiences' loyalties shift.

"I'm not a fan of empty comedy. The core of Dave's work is what's at the heart of all of us as human beings, and he has an innate understanding of how people work. If you intensify that, you find the comedy and it doesn't have to be manufactured."

So principal Viv lets slip the odd comment about her own background, which shows her softer side; Laurie shows he's not as conservative as he may appear. Bradley says she has treated Viv like a politician because she believes that's how senior school administrators often behave.

"I've thought about this a lot, how we perceive school principals and the way they have to behave. It is an incredibly political job so Viv has a front, but Dave has written her so beautifully that every now and again we see who she really is and where she's come from. She's a scrapper and I like playing her."


Performance

What: Kings of the Gym

Where and when: Maidment Theatre, February 7-March 2; Turner Centre, Kerikeri, March 6-7; Forum North, Whangarei, March 9

- NZ Herald

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