Warm-hearted yet piercing, Melanie Tait’s comedy totes weighty issues over the line and makes light work of it.
A quest for gender parity is front and centre as Dr Penny Anderson (Sharon Millerchip), a Sydney tree-changer, starts a campaign to ensure that the women competitors in Appleton’s annual spud-carrying race have a shot at the same prize money as the blokes.
A no brainer, she thinks. This is 2019 after all. But Appleton is a town that views change with suspicion and where resentment takes root as easily as a crop of King Edwards.
As Penny gently agitates for her cause (collection tins in shops; a GoFundMe campaign), reactionary forces are stirred and criticism comes from unexpected directions: from Nikki (Amber McMahon), the town hairdresser and reigning ladies’ potato race champion; from long-time race organiser Bev (Valerie Bader); and from Appleton’s Facebook trolls – many of whom Penny knows (having grown up here) or treats as their GP.
Brought up in Robertson (the home of The Big Potato), Tait draws on her personal experience of what it is to take on small town shibboleths. She paints her picture of rural community with warmth and a wry smile, but she doesn’t shy away from its less picturesque aspects and has an ear for the ways grievance is expressed in a place where everybody knows your business.
Priscilla Jackson directs a bare-bones staging (a Michael Scott-Mitchell design) whose main feature is the arse end of an old ute. Her casting is flawless. Millerchip’s Penny is a winning mix of pep and calculation. McMahon conjures Nikki from equal parts vivaciousness and spite.
Merridy Eastman is very funny as Barb, the mild-mannered race committee stalwart and comic counterpoint to Bader’s dour Bev. Sapidah Kian makes her Ensemble debut as Rania, a recently arrived Syrian refugee for whom the slow speed of change in Appleton is one of its most attractive facets.
The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race is already close to a sell-out for the Ensemble. Once it’s done playing in the city, however, I can see this race being run in regional theatres for years to come.