The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race: Review

This is a story about women, by a woman, for women, but accessible to everyone. The playwright is a woman, the director (Priscilla Jackman) a woman, and the story is firmly from a female perspective. It’s about time.

This is typical Ensemble fare; it’s light, witty, very Australian, with a strong underlying message that equality is important – because it’s right, because it’s fair and because we must empower all children to feel they’ve been offered equal opportunities.

The play is based on a true story. Former ABC journalist Melanie Tait wrote about her hometown Robertson, in NSW’s Southern Highlands, which holds an annual potato race at the local showground. This involves men strapping a 50kg sack of potatoes on their shoulders and running a lap of the ground, and women strapping a 20kg sack for their lap. At the time the play is set, the prize money was $1000 for men and $200 for women.

Tait decided to rectify the injustice of the prize by raising funds to match the prize of the men’s race for the women. When the money couldn’t be raised by the townspeople, Tait took the fundraising online with a Go Fund Me page. The funds raised eventually topped $3000, at which point Tait shut it down.

In the small town of Robertson, this was seen as an act of treason. They didn’t support the idea of a feminist trying to fundraise for this kind of issue.

When the Ensemble theatre was looking for a new play, Tait took the bones of this story, added to it characters she’d collected from other life experiences and deepened the drama with some changes to the original story. Robertson becomes Appleton, and what emerges is a fully formed tale which is very Australian, very topical and highly entertaining.

The all-female cast is wonderful – all equally talented and funny. They are always on the move which keeps the story vibrant.

Valerie Bader plays Bev Armstrong, the traditional matriarch of the town. She’s supporting an invalid husband, an alcoholic son, and is battling her own health problems, but makes sure she continues to lead the Annual Appleton Show – the highpoint of the town’s year.

Merridy Eastman is her best friend Barb Ling, who plays second fiddle to Bev in the running of the show. She is a complex character with her secrets (she always wanted to be one of the runners in the potato race) and her burdens (having no children in a small town is not easy, she says). She also wants to be part of the modern world while keeping her town traditions. When it comes to equalising the race prize money, she is torn.

Sharon Millerchip plays Penny Anderson, the character based on playwright Tait. The actress is a regular at the Ensemble and was most recently Shirley Valentine. She is full of energy and passion and leads the cast through a very upbeat performance where we are convinced we can change the world.

Rounding out the cast is Amber McMahon who plays Nikki – the mean girl we are so familiar with in Australian stories such as Muriel’s Wedding and The Dressmaker. She’s bouncy and fun and so passionate about her causes. Sapidah Kian plays a Syrian refugee, and this addition gives the play a current context.

The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race is an excellent opportunity to back women in theatre, support new Australian work, and enjoy a good night, all at the same time.

Feature image via ensemble theatre