The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race – Melanie Tait and good old fashioned fun. (Theatre Review)
The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race
Ensemble Theatre 22 March – 27 April
Images: Phil Erbacher
Feel good, feel good! That is what you get with The Appleton Ladies Potato Race, in abundance. A lighthearted, joyful romp through an essentially romanticized vision of small-town rural Australia that plays heavily into other popular Australian products like ‘Babe’ and ‘Sea Change.’ Quaint country folk with hearts of gold is the order of the day here at Appleton, when the well-worn trope of the bright student going to the big city, getting an education and coming back to tell the yokels ‘what for’ receives a country fresh airing via writer Melanie Tait’s contemporary snapshot. All the predictability of this style is there for comfort, while a few modern touches are included for a contemporary feel. Our returned Doctor Penny (Sharon Millerchip) is upgraded to lesbian. Our gruff ‘old school’ local averse to newfangled ways is fighting The Facebook. Our rebel with a heart of gold is struggling with an addict husband. The supportive sidekick is ‘An Immigrant’ and Barb Ling (Merridy Eastman in a stand out performance) is full of genuine surprises. Imagine Northern Exposure if Joel was born in Cicely with a dose of Alexander McCall Smith for good measure, in a woman identified version, and you have The Appleton Ladies Potato Race.
Director Pricilla Jackman does a wonderful job keeping this script alive with deft performances and a chirpy speed that appeals to theatre goers looking for something a little lighter with a focus purely on entertainment. The deeper messages are kept tidy and free of ponderous examination, so all focus can remain on a thoroughly good ‘clean’ night of theatre. She is supported by a strong show from Felicity Nicol as assistant director and Jane Fitzgerald as dramaturg. The fun and frivolity are plonked on a charming low-key set by Michael Scott-Mitchell.
Performances are the star of the night in The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race, with a stand out from Merridy Eastman in a flawless incarnation of the true CWA stalwart. Sapidah Kian calls forth some much-needed depth in her role as the put-upon immigrant dealing with small town Australia – but writer Melanie Tait never lets this character get too heavy. Amber McMahon as Nikki Armstrong and Penny Anderson excel by bringing something a little extra to strongly stereotyped characterisations. All the roles (and the play itself) rest on the very capable shoulders of Valerie Bader as the die-in-the-wool country woman standing for old fashioned principles.
Rounding out the creatives efforts is some clever costume sourcing from Genevieve Graham, supported by the strong stage management of Nicole Robinson and Alira McKenzie-Williams. Subtle and careful lighting from Karen Norris takes front and centre stage toward the end in a gorgeous evocation of small-town festivities. Tegan Nicholls calls forth succinct and careful sound work that supports subtler aspects of the show. The behind the scenes troupe should be particularly commended for The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race, as this strength reveals itself in a seamless, well run show.
The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race should appeal to those who love musical theatre – indeed it could benefit from some musical numbers as Melanie Tait has emphasized feel good and be happy with this show. Melanie Tait was born and bred in Robertson NSW and brings all her passion and love for her country town to this cheery, light evening of theater.