The Appleton Ladies Potato Race
05/08/2023 - 09/09/2023
Written by Melanie Tait
Directed by Anthea Williams
The Court Theatre
The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race plays at The Court Theatre (Christchurch) from 5 August to 9 September 2023.
The humble potato is at the heart of social change in The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race, a punchy new comedy making its Aotearoa professional theatre premiere at The Court Theatre this August.
The small town of Appleton, population 1,557, may seem like an unlikely setting for debates over gender politics and societal equality, but change is racing toward Appleton. Returning home after years away, GP Penny Anderson is shocked to discover that the town’s famous Potato Race awards $1,000 prize money to men, but only $200 to women. Someone has to shake things up in this town, and Penny is that person.
Based on author Melanie Tait’s real-life experience, The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race is a story about standing up for what you believe in. Brimming with humour, honesty and small-town charm, Director Anthea Williams says, “there’s a lot of love in this story, and in this community.” She was drawn to the story not only for the humour, but for its heart. “In ways it is like a family but, as in families, that means there are also a lot of challenges.”
Appleton reflects the experience of any community confronted with change – that change may be uncomfortable for some, but well overdue for others. “How do we create change and discard the things that aren’t serving us, without losing what makes us special, strong and great? How do you take your community along with you? I think Appleton shows that change doesn’t have to be scary” Williams says.
The main event may be the town’s annual Potato Race, but the real story centres on how the five women preparing for it deal with the unexpected challenges it has raised, and the shifting dynamics of their old relationships with each other.
“This town is run by amazing, hard-working women of different generations” says Williams. “Penny is a smalltown girl who has done well – she’s coming home victorious in some ways, yet her life hasn’t worked out as she’d hoped.” The women in the community she returns to are her cousin and best friend, the two older women who basically brought them up and have been the stalwarts and champions of Appleton, and newcomer Rania. All have their own challenges in daily life, but Penny’s pursuit of potato-based equality betokens further disruption to some, whilst also promising new possibilities to others.
The actors behind the women of Appleton include Kathleen Burns (last seen in Sense and Sensibility) and Lynda Mulligan, both of whom starred in 2019’s The Pink Hammer under Williams’ direction; Donna Brookbanks and Anne Chamberlain, who have not performed with The Court for some years, and newcomer Katrina Baylis.
Although set in a rural Australian town, Williams believes that local audiences will easily recognise the similarities with their own communities. “Christchurch has rural communities right on its doorstep and a very strong local community who pull together, as they did after the earthquakes” she says. “There are a lot of families that really care about each other here, just as in Appleton.”
She also points out that “New Zealand is also a nation of travellers – lots of Kiwis travel and come back home. When they do, they have to work out what to bring back with them and what to leave behind”, just as Penny does.
The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race is currently in production as a movie, but Ōtautahi audiences don’t have to wait for a theatrical release to experience the warmth and humour of this funny, uplifting and energetic story.
“A must-see. There are no downsides to this polished, measured, and punchy work that says so much with such style.” The Music
SHOW TIMES 5 August to 9 September
Mon and Thur 6:30pm
Tue, Wed, Fri and Sat 7:30pm
Forum 6:30pm 7 August 2023
Matinee 2:00pm 26 August 2023 (Communication Friendly performance)
Earlybird Promo Code: EARLYBIRD
Standard, Senior and Friends of the Court Theatre $49
On sale until 3 August for shows 5 -19 August 2023
Senior (65+) $55
Friends of The Court Theatre $52
All concessions (see website) $34
Group (6+) 10% Discount Applies to Standard Adult, Friends, Child and Senior tickets
Bookings: phone 0800 333 100 or visit www.courttheatre.org.nz
Character Played By
Penny: Donna Brookbanks
Nikki: Kathleen Burns
Bev: Lynda Milligan
Barb: Anne Chamberlain
Rania: Katrina Baylis
Director Anthea Williams
Set Designer Rosie Gilmore
Costume Designer Pam Jones
Sound Designer Matt Short
Lighting Designer Giles Tanner
Lighting Operator Geoff Nunn
Stage Manager to 13/9/23 Jo Bunce
Stage Manager from 14/9/23 Ben Freeth
Comedy , Theatre ,
90 mins (excl. interval)
Race falls short despite winning cast and premise
Review by Lindsay Clark 06th Aug 2023
A small, rural community and outspoken characters with a fervent focus on their traditional potato race add up to a useful context for comedy. When gender politics and cultural tensions are added to the mix and a respected cast is lined up, all seems to point to a positive theatre experience. Disappointingly, the combination, under the direction of Anthea Williams, mostly falls short for me.
From the outset, the action, presented in short scenes, feels lost on the wide expanse of the stage, albeit washed with red ochre suggesting an Aussie landscape and relieved by a cut-out pavilion facade which comes into its own in the final scene. It is left to appropriate items of furniture to help create specific locations and although the cast works wholeheartedly, the challenge is significant. For me, a sense of a close-knit community reluctantly facing change is never securely established.
The plot is driven by tensions arising when Donna Brookbanks’ forthright Penny, who grew up in Appleton, returns to become the new doctor and is determined to change its old-fashioned notions of gender roles. The immediate catalyst is the revered potato race, where men and women taking part are differently rewarded. In spite of the inevitable challenge to established relationships and administration, the result is probably not hard to predict. Our interest has to be held by genuine cut-and-thrust as the participants work through their changing positions.
The cast, working in somewhat relentless Strine, define their roles solidly and with humorous effect. In the cast of five good women, four are initially comfortably accepting of the status quo, even as they snipe at it in their regular woman-to-woman encounters.
Local hairdresser, well-toned athlete and acknowledged champion, Nikki, played with gusto by Kathleen Burns, is fiercely opposed to the disruption her childhood companion Penny is stirring up. For professional woman Penny, who is gay, unmarried and childless, the matter is one of seeing justice done.
Syrian Rania, played by Katrina Baylis, brings her own insights of social justice to the scene, widening the focus for consideration. As older members of the community who’ve always managed the Appleton Show and its star attraction, the all-important race, Anne Chamberlain’s Barb and Lynda Milligan’s Bev provide a solid streak of humour. Barb’s crowning moment comes when she gets to play the commentator role for the triumphant race, while for Bev, it must be her inspired and typically practical solution to a last-minute emergency that almost scuttles the event.
Although their combined hard work does not wholly carry the day for me, an appreciative audience duly rewards the production with cheerful applause. Programme notes refer to a film version currently in its post-production phase and it may be that a cinematic approach will fill out the gaps in the Appleton world, building on a frame which is in itself an interesting scenario.
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer