The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race

By Melanie Tait. Hunters Hill Theatre at Club Ryde. Director Jennifer Willison. 17 Nov – 3 Dec, 2023

Reviewed : 26 November, 2023

Photo : Dan Ferris

Melanie Tait’s wonderful play about Australian women going into bat for equality is a great way for Hunters Hill Theatre to conclude its 2023 season. And with five women on stage, a woman directing and at least half of the creatives and crew also women, it is a tribute to the strong female cohort at all of Sydney’s community theatre companies! Go girls!

Jennifer Willison sets the play before a rural backdrop reminiscent of the green southern highlands of NSW where the idea for the play originated. Wooden crates and some potato sacks are the only additional requirements for the women of “Appleton” to tell their stories – stories that are representative of women everywhere.

There’s Bev, who’s worked hard all her life. She’s strong, a bit weary, the backbone of the Appleton Show Committee. She doesn’t suffer fools readily, doesn’t warm to technology and is a stickler for tradition. Linda Young finds this by making Bev impatient, dour, resolute – but also funny. She delivers Bev’s one liners dryly, straight-faced but with the hint of a knowing smirk.

Photo : Dan Ferris

There’s Barb. Bev’s long-time friend, and Secretary of the Show Committee. Tait describes her as a “People Pleaser Extraordinaire” and Judy Jankovics meets this description with all the gentle joie de vivre of an aging Pollyanna. She counters Bev’s cynical remarks with optimism and cheer – a cheer that covers a lasting hurt that once made her feel she “was being left out of life”.

Bev and Barb, lone attendees at the Show Committee meeting, introduce the history of the Appleton Show’s potato races – and the culture of the town.

Penny, a doctor, has returned to Appleton after a break-up. She’s a GP, a feminist, outspoken, upbeat – but she’s a bit disappointed in what she sees as sexism and disparity in her hometown. Caroline Lloyd makes her confident, out-spoken, openly critical about the opportunities for girls in Appleton and determined to try to change things – especially the prize money for the ladies’ potato race.

Vikki, the local hairdresser, is vibrant, a bit of a gossip and the favourite to win the ladies’ race. Tonia Davis finds her buoyancy, chirpiness and self-assured acceptance of her lot and the town. A self confidence that sees her standing up for the town in the face of Penny’s criticisms.

Photo : Dan Ferris

Rania is a newcomer from Syria. She’s an art teacher waiting for her credentials to be recognised. In the meantime, she’s determined to fit in – and that means competing in the potato race. Moja Band portrays her as lovably outgoing and aware, a listener whose responses are considered and telling:

If things changed as slowly in my country, maybe I wouldn’t have had to leave so quickly. Things changing slowly means stability.”

All these characters have faced challenges, explained by the actors in moments of introspection that are short but moving. Tait’s economy with words is effective in these instances – and in the very realistic dialogue, carefully honed to suit each character. Willison supported this with blocking that gave her cast time to think about their characters and develop convincing relationships with each other …

“Women working together … shouldering the load.” (Penny: Scene 14)

A lovely note on which HHT will close another successful season – and introduce their next.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine