Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Mar 22 – Apr 27, 2019
Playwright: Melanie Tait
Director: Priscilla Jackman
Cast: Valerie Bader, Merridy Eastman, Sapidah Kian, Amber McMahon, Sharon Millerchip
Images by Phil Erbacher
Like many of our little country towns, the fictional Appleton struggles with the idea that women should be able to enjoy the same privileges as men. They fool themselves into thinking that the genders simply belong in different domains, rather than admitting that people are being unjustly deprived of spaces and experiences. Worse, they habitually overlook power imbalances, allowing inequalities to exist, under the guise of having to keep the peace. In Melanie Tait’s The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race, Penny moves home from the city, to a township busying itself with having to gear up for show day. When she discovers that the day’s highlight, the potato race (involving people running with sacks of potatoes on their backs) awards the winner in the women’s category only $200, or $800 less than the men’s, she decides to take action.
It is not an easy task of course, to find backing for her cause, in this conservative community where it can feel as though tradition is all they have. As is crucial in any feminist story, persistence is the key, and in Tait’s play, that persistence is embodied by a mild-mannered protagonist, who instead of going into her project all guns blazing and feisty, takes it upon herself to do all the hard work with inconceivable politeness. Her only true ally is a Syrian sidekick, Rania, who provides moral support, and little else besides. Penny is a GP, and Rania an unemployed refugee; they both wish to affect the same change, but Australian currency clearly has its biases. Nevertheless, The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race is funny, passionate and rousing, an uplifting romp that many will find irresistibly delightful.
Director Priscilla Jackman imbues the show with extraordinary warmth. A palpable sentimentality colours this sojourn into mystical rural Australia, where people with good hearts never fail to charm our pants off, even if they are a little ignorant. Jackman’s representation of modern sisterhood is edifying, thoughtfully nuanced in all the complexities it is able to convey in regards the always painful job of galvanising people against the patriarchy. Actor Sharon Millerchip leads the charge as Dr Penny Anderson, perhaps a trifle too sweet in approach, but a persuasive presence who disallows us from ever questioning her intentions.
Rania is played by an understated Sapidah Kian, who introduces a distinct quotient of realism to the otherwise stridently fairy-tale quality of the production. Excellent narrative tension is created by Valerie Bader, august and compelling as Bev, a marvellous boss about town, unofficially in charge of everything. Splendid humour is brought by Merridy Eastman and Amber McMahon, both fabulously imaginative, and faultless with their comic timing. It is an impressively well-rehearsed presentation, featuring five actors in a cohesive and joyful collaboration that perfectly illustrates the point of the whole exercise.
The men carry 50kg sacks but the women carry 20kg. In real life, men do carry heavier loads than women in some places, and the reverse is also true. We hear of young men killing themselves in the bush, but rarely connect these dots. There is no need for any of our burdens to be allocated unevenly. In The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race, women are fighting not only for equal prize money, but also for the opportunity to let every person have equal footing in their society. The consequences to disadvantage are obvious, but in our neo-liberal world, we neglect to recognise the problems that arise within loci that are concentrated with power. If we can orchestrate a dispersion of power, money, privilege and advantage, hardship at the bottom and at the top, must surely begin to evaporate. If this sounds an unconvincing argument, we can understand why arms have to be twisted in order to make things better.