BWW REVIEW: A Small Town Australian Story Big On Heart, APPLETON LADIES POTATO RACE Gives Hope For A More Balanced Society Where Women Are Valued Equally To Men
Tuesday 26th March 2019, 8:15pm, Ensemble Theatre
Based in truth, APPLETON LADIES POTATO RACE is a delightful little slice of modern day Australian whilst highlighting how far we still need to go in achieving gender equality in the 21st century. Melanie Tait's new Australian work, directed by Pricilla Jackman, is heart-warming, hilarious and hopeful as it captures the spirit of a wider community that wants gender parity.
APPLETON LADIES POTATO RACE is based on Tait's personal experience with the NSW Southern Highlands town of Robertson's annual Show's Potato Race. Returning to her home town, the journalist/playwright/feminist was appalled to find that Robertson's Potato Race, where contestants race with hessian sacks of spuds on their backs, had a wide disparity between prize money for men and women. For the play, Tait has altered the numbers slightly, but the underlying response remains the same. The shows protagonist, Penny (Sharon Millerchip) is upset with the inequality and organises donation tins and online crowdfunding to make up the difference between the men's and women's prize money but not everyone in the community is happy with the prospect of balancing the scales. Penny is a 30 something returning to her home town with education and ideals after years of being away studying, finding herself, coming out, and forging a career. She finds that Appleton still has a long way to go in removing the old ideas that women were worth less than men and she sets out to make things equal, but this doesn't go down well in a community not comfortable with progress.
With an economical cast of 5 women, Tait ensures that the essence of the community, as seen through the eyes of its women, is easily felt and Jackman heightens the stereotypes with the directorial choices whilst ensuring that each woman retains a depth of character. Bev (Valerie Bader) is a formidable woman used to the pressures of organising the annual Show with only Barb assisting, the men of the committee providing little to no help apart from taking the spotlight on the day. This strength is contrasted with her persistence of staying in the past, not adopting change, whether it be technology or social values. Barb (Merridy Eastman) is a bright optimistic people pleaser who loves reality TV and whilst having no children of her own, has been like a mother two her nieces Penny and Nikki (Amber McMahon). Nikki, Penny's sportier and more social cousin, never left Appleton, instead becoming a single mother to a brood of boys, running her own beauty salon, coaching the local boys football team and holding the title of long-time winner of the women's division of the Potato Race. Newcomer Rania(Sapidah Kian) is another single mother, a recent migrant from Aleppo who looks to a better future with her daughter but is hampered by a system that fails to recognise her qualifications as an art teacher. All five actors deliver fabulous performances that come together well in a work that teeters between realism and exaggeration whilst ensuring that the audience can get a good measure of the women's underlying character.
Michael Scott-Mitchell, one of only two men in the 11 strong creative team, presents a seemingly simple set of the back of a country ute, sacks of spuds and a giant potato (Robertson's landmark tourist attraction is "The Big Potato"). The stage hides two small revolves which are used sparingly ensuring their novelty does not wear thin. While the ute serves as playing field bleachers and the share-and-swap farmers market, other locations in Appleton are identified with simple props ranging from a salon hairdryer stand and a medical instrument trolley. Genevieve Graham's costuming captures the characters well, from the hipster Penny to Nikki's outdated 'styles' that are stuck in the 90's with leopard print, high waisted 'mom jeans' and big perm, and Barb's equally dated country club casual of pastels with accessories of visor and bum bag. The flashback to the 80's is decidedly hilarious from a costuming attention to detail.
The comedy of small-town country life presents a lightness over the important issues that Tait addresses. Jackman ensures that the work is held back from being too overt with the messages whilst still ensuring that the gender parity, women's empowerment and the need to stick together, racism, refugee issues, and concerns of a community affected by poor farming conditions are all addressed. Jackman has ensured all five characters are likable throughout as they are relatable, therefore allowing more audience engagement in the desire for Penny's plan to have succeeded.
APPLETON LADIES POTATO RACE is a seemingly simple comedy with important underlying messages presented in an easy to digest format that won't offend but hopefully may educate people to consider how we, as a society, can change the way women are valued and viewed in society.
All photos by Phil Erbacher