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Sydney review - The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race: a real joy to experience


Valerie Bader and Merridy Eastman. Photo by Phil Erbacher

The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race

By Melanie Tait

Directed by Priscilla Jackman

An Ensemble Theatre Production

Ensemble Theatre

98 McDougall Street

Kirribilli

Season: 22 March – 27 April 2019. Bookings: www.ensemble.com.au

Part of the culture of small towns across the country is the annual agricultural show where the community comes together to celebrate the animals and produce which are the mainstay of their economy.

The fictional town of Appleton has a 100-year-old tradition of potato races, one for men and one for the ‘ladies’. It’s certainly a crowd pleaser and show highlight.

In The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race writer Melanie Tait has drawn upon her fond childhood memories of country living and created five female characters in a story relevant in many ways to contemporary social issues.

The opening scene is the meeting of the organising committee for the annual show. Present are Bev Armstrong (Valerie Bader) and Barb Ling (Merridy Eastman), President and Secretary respectively, who are planning the upcoming events. There are others on the committee but, as usual, have not bothered to turn up.

Barb is excited to have a Cold Chisel cover band called ‘Bold Sizzle’ booked. She and Bev are old hands at this job, both devoted to the community and keen to protect the towns traditions despite its dwindling population.

Meanwhile, Penny Anderson (Sharon Millerchip) is returning to town after many years absent as the new General Practioner. She is catching up with her old childhood chum Amber McMahon (Nikki Armstrong), who is the chief outspoken supporter of the local football team.

Whilst discussing old times and current events, Amber mentions her success in the annual Ladies’ Potato Race. She relished winning the $200 prize, which was enough for her to escape to Sydney to catch one of the big theatre shows. She also mentions in passing that the prizemoney for the men’s race is $1000.

Penny is somewhat of a social reformer and immediately sees a red flag. Why do men win $1000 and women only win $200, she asks. Especially nowadays, when major sporting events such as Wimbledon have gender parity in prizemoney.

This issue really strikes a nerve with Penny and she takes it on herself to raise awareness and is determined to achieve equal prize money in the races. When it is suggested to her that perhaps the simplest solution is to aggregate the two race amounts and split evenly, she says “I don’t want to take away from the men, I just want equality”.

Penny’s determination on this issue becomes a splinter in the community as opinions are divided. It becomes a clash of those who are happy with the status quo and others who see the justice of equal winnings. In support of Penny is the local Syrian refugee Sapidah Kian (Rania Hamid), and together they start a campaign to raise the extra $800 for the women’s race. They use collection boxes, door knocking and a ‘Go Fund Me’ page which gets worldwide notoriety.

The story is splendidly told and demonstrates how a seemingly small, yet socially important, issue can tear friendships and communities apart. The female characters portrayed are a terrific cross-section of modern, rural communities, some outspoken, others timid, yet each with an opinion reflecting their life’s’ experiences.

There is much humour in this play but some poignant, dramatic moments as well. There are no male characters and yet there are plenty of references to local townsmen, mostly named ‘Billy’. However, their absence does not seem conspicuous at all.

The all-female cast is outstanding. No one actor dominated in talent; everyone knew their character and simply delivered fantastic performances.

The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race was a real joy to experience and is proudly an all Australian story. Besides its light and funny style, it does address issues of inequality, injustice and integration. And matters concerning diversity and bigotry are covered without the message being rammed down our throats. We get it!

This is a world premiere. I hope to hear more of the success of The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race as time goes by.

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