The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race (Queensland Theatre) – theatre review

This uplifting Queensland Theatre production of Melanie Tait’s successful play-turned film is a very entertaining and fun trip to the theatre. It manages to evoke lots of laughs while also pressing a few salient buttons regarding Australians’ stubbornness about, and suspicion of change. At one point, one of the older women says, ‘We don’t even have a voice’. Yes, very salient.

Tait was inspired by real-life events in her home town of Robertson, NSW, when she learnt what happened when some women didn’t think it fair that the local show’s potato race gave a $1,000 prize for the men’s winner and only $200 for the women’s winner. (The race gets its name from people racing while carrying a heavy sack of potatoes on their shoulders.)

Photos: Brett Boardman

The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race sees one of its former residents, Dr Penny Anderson (Libby Munro) returning home from Sydney to live after the breakdown of her marriage. She’s outraged when she hears her cousin, hairdresser Nikki (Rachel Gordon), excitedly talking about the race and how she plans on spending her $200 prize money when she wins.

Penny makes it her mission to fundraise so the women can win the same prize money as the men, but she’s met with resistance. Negative reactions go from the ‘that’s just the way it’s always been’ variety to accusing Penny of causing division and bringing out the dark side of the town. This happens after some nastiness rears its head with insults and sabotage tactics showing that embracing true equality is not on a lot of residents’ to-do list. The fact that Rania (Natassia Halabi), a refugee from Aleppo, also helps with the fundraising brings even more ugliness – how dare she stop being a grateful and compliant refugee and actually want to fight for something.

But there is also positive support, especially from Nikki and Penny’s Aunty Barb (Valerie Bader) who clashes with her less liberal-minded peer, Bev (Barbara Lowing). They epitomise the town’s opposing views about moving with the times or sticking with tradition. But even though there are strong disagreements between all the women, what binds them is their love for their town and the value they place on caring for others in whatever way that presents itself. All five women – the entire cast – bring energy and sincerity to their characters in the heartwarming story guaranteed to put a smile on everyone’s face.

Directed expertly by Priscilla Jackman, the play’s set design by Michael Scott-Mitchell is very minimalist, with the centrepiece being a rusty Holden FJ ute. A rotating section surrounding it adds movement, with this basic set surprisingly efficient in evoking the different locations with the addition of a few props.

The lighting design by John Rayment is effective and dynamic, while Brady Watkins’ constant background sound design is very evocative, making you feel as if you’re in the country town chatting with these women. Leigh Buchanan’s costumes immediately give personalities to the characters, from Nikki’s garish leggings to Bev’s loose vest and trousers.

The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race is at the Bille Brown Theatre, 78 Montague Road, South Brisbane until 28 October 2023

Vicki Englund

Other reviews you might enjoy: