Reviews, Stage, Theatre

The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race review (Ensemble Theatre, Sydney)

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Here’s a story ripped from the headlines … of a small-town newspaper serving a rural community of not many.

Melanie Tait, an ABC broadcaster and fledgling playwright, wanted to feel closer to her hometown of Robertson in New South Wales, a good few hours in traffic from Sydney. This is potato country and each year a race is held for men and women around the showground – while carrying a bag of spuds on your back. It’s the sort of entirely meaningless/critically important exercise of community spirit that small towns thrive on.

But Tait was struck by an anomaly: the male winner pockets $1000, the ladies champ only $200. The blokes carry more weight, sure, but the disparity was unfair. If Serena Williams takes home as much as Roger Federer at Wimbledon, in a game of fewer sets, why couldn’t Robertson get with the times?

As The Sydney Morning Herald profiles, Tait didn’t initially make a fuss but decided to crowdfund the difference. She’d just hand the extra $800 to the organisers and nobody would be worse off.

That, Tait quickly discovered, was not nearly as simple as it sounded. Change makes small towns nervous. Even for those it could benefit, for reasons Tait had never even considered. The revolt came in the form of vicious town gossip and vile social media trolling, splitting the community at its heart down the middle.

It’s Melanie Tait’s understanding and affection for the characters that makes each one flesh and blood.

And so at the harbourside Ensemble Theatre we have The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race, a sophomore play by Tait (The Vegemite Tales) set in a fictional town not unlike Robertson, led by the fictional character of Penny (a winning Sharon Millerchip), a local on the outside not unlike the playwright.

Which is to say this is not a work of particularly grand ambition. And yet Tait, impossibly close to the story, has crafted one of the more successful pieces of theatre I’ve seen in some time. It sets a moderate bar to joyously leap over, with genuine wit and irresistible warmth.

With unfussy direction (Priscilla Jackman) and spare design (the set is by Michael Scott-Mitchell), it’s a total crowd-pleaser, a colloquial Aussie play without a moment of cringe.

It’s Tait’s understanding and affection for the characters that makes each one flesh and blood. And Jackman, building an impressive body of work on Sydney stages, who skillfully modulates the broad humour and country clichés.

Valerie Bader is terrific as the tough-as-nails show committee head Bev, alongside the scene-stealing Merridy Eastman as the impossibly chipper and quietly revolutionary show secretary Barb. I’d happily watch this double act in any context.

Quiet revolution binds these women together, in fact. Like Syrian immigrant Rania (Sapidah Kian), trying to play the Good Refugee while continuing to fight for what’s fair. And Nikki (Amber McMahon, in a smartly judged performance), who goes against her childhood friend’s feminist fight to enjoy some hard-won personal freedom.

Millerchip is perfect as Penny, clipped and cropped, bold yet brittle, dealing with her past with the dignity and compassion, for herself and others, that the rest of us wish we had.

It’s a wonderfully modern Australian portrait.

The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race plays the Ensemble Theatre until April 27

Image: Sapidah Kian, Sharon Millerchip and Amber McMahon. Photo by Phil Erbacher

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