The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race

Ensemble-The-Appleton-Ladies-Potato-Race-photo-by Phil-ErbacherA young doctor moves into town and discovers that the winners of the women’s section of the annual potato race are paid less than those in the men’s section. In an effort to ingratiate herself with the townspeople, she decides to initiate a campaign to right this perceived wrong, only to discover, to her bewilderment, that her strongest opposition comes from the town’s women. So rather than being lauded for her efforts she finds herself becoming increasingly more isolated.

An all-star ensemble cast of five actresses make up the entire cast, and each of them gets a moment to shine in this warm-hearted comedy, inspired by playwright, Melanie Tate’s own experiences in the NSW country town of Robertson.

An award-winning playwright, Tate has fashioned an entertaining play, packed with witty one-liners, often deliciously subversive, which disguise the seriousness of some of the issues which fuel the reactions of the various characters, but which tend to linger in the consciousness after the laughter has died down.

Sharon Millerchip is delightful as Penny Anderson, the well-meaning young doctor, who also happens to be a lesbian, and who finds herself the unwitting focus of the town’s ire. Sapidah Kian gives a charming performance as Rania, a refugee new to the town, trying to find a place for herself in the community, but willing to risk all to help Penny achieve her goal.

Valerie Bader plays Bev Armstrong, the hard-bitten, heart-of-gold town elder. She has all the best laughs and nails every one of them with unerring precision, while rubber-faced Merridy Eastman is a constant joy as her genial friend and ally, Barb Ling, who carries a surprising secret.

However it is the hardworking hairdresser, Nikki Armstrong, mother-of-four and regular winner of the Appleton potato race, who surprisingly is the person most opposed to any changes to the race prize money. Amber McMahon’s carefully nuanced performance in this role captures beautifully Nikki’s conflict in wanting to be a friend to Penny, while protecting her own goals.

Priscilla Jackman’s direction is economical and inventive. All the action takes place around a single striking set-piece, a rusting Holden Ute. A clever device conjured up by designer Michael Scott-Mitchell which brilliantly sets the country-town atmosphere. The actors bring on any additional props necessary for particular scenes, and then efficiently clear them when they’re no longer required.

Not only does The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race tell a delightful story, it is also a charmingly unpretentious showcase for five superb actors, whose names most of the audience will never know.

Whether it the decision of the production houses or the presenting venue, it is becoming increasingly usual not to have programs available on the night for the audience. The Canberra Theatre Centre sends out online programs for patrons to either view at home, or (surely not) on their phones during a performance. It is doubtful how many of the audience even notice or bother to look at these.

“It’s because of Covid” explained a helpful usher, though free programs were placed on the seats for performances of the STC’s A German Life. Not only is it demeaning to the artists not to be identified, the programs also provide a cherished souvenir, and a historical record of the performance.

The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race
The Playhouse – Canberra Theatre Centre, London Circuit, Canberra
Performance: Thursday 3 June 2021
Season: 3 – 5 June 2021

Following its Canberra season, The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race will be presented at the Joan Sutherland PAC, Penrith (11 – 12 June); Mackay Entertainment & Convention Centre (17 June); and Riverway Arts Centre, Townsville (19 June). For more information, visit: for details.

Image: Sharon Millerchip as Penny Anderson and Amber McMahon as Nikki Armstrong – photo by Phil Erbacher

Review: Bill Stephens OAM