Bouncing ideas off the theatre walls

Kings of the Gym, by Dave Armstrong
Directed by Partick Davies
Fortune Theatre
February 6-27

I'm the king of the castle and you're the dirty rascal ... Some of that old-style us-and-them conflict, crude as it is, makes a rattling good play.

In Kings of the Gym, Dave Armstrong, ex-teacher and author of multiple TV and stage dramas, highlights a comic culture-clash in the PE Dept of Hautapu High. Irresistible force, principal Viv ('Cleavage') Cleaver - Lisa Warrington in magnificent voice - meets immovable object, PE head Laurie Connor: Phil Vaughan outdoing himself in body language, whether in-your-face or (at some points) exquisitely refined. The issues: professionalism, or box-ticking of the curriculum's new criteria versus skiving off to drink at the New Criterion; supervision of classes versus yelling out the window while phone-gambling on sport.

Enter a third player, with more issues: student teacher Annie Tupua, reporting on integration of students with special needs, then having special needs of her own. Rhema Sutherland reprises a role she's played before, with the grace of a young Maori role model (a label Annie hates) starting her career. The issues: professionalism again, but now on both heads' part, as they question Annie's including a fundamentalist view of creation/evolution in teaching biology. Laurie, "dirty rascal" in one bout, becomes righteous party in another, sticking up for secular education as if there was some firmness in his usually slack spine.

Annie's male counterpart as young romantic lead also changes sides sometimes. Jared Kirkwood, voted best actor at last year's Dunedin Theatre Awards, is persuasive as Pat, Laurie's assistant in all escapades. Scorned by Viv for his lack of ambition, Pat enjoys teaching sport because it's fun. Having earlier shown up his boss's decrepitude, with Annie he yet sticks up for Laurie, who enables kids of varying abilities - even if it's just for stacking groin-protectors after cricket - to enjoy taking part.

Enjoy is the key word for this well-paced play, on a gym-like set of concrete-block authenticity. Director Patrick Davies ensures the actors play their satirical bouts with ease, never forgetting that even in comedy you're throwing around not just balls or bodies, but ideas.

- Helen Watson White 

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