Theatre review: The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race, Bille Brown Theatre

Mashing through the glass ceiling, one potato race at a time. 
Potato Race. Two women stand back to back, each carrying a potato sack over their shoulders.

Queensland Theatre’s The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race delivers a heart-warming homecoming story that gives a light-hearted look at gender inequality.

Based on her actual experiences in her home town of Robertson, Melanie Tait’s play makes a small town story have a big impact in a world that needs to catch up on equal pay for women.

Penny (Libby Munro) has left her high-flying doctor job in the city, returning to her home town of Appleton to be the only GP for miles around. But not everyone is happy about it, especially when she brings her “Australia’s Next Top Feminist” views into their country town traditions.

The famous potato race is about to take place at the annual Appleton show, but when Penny discovers that the prize money wildly differs between the men’s and women’s races, ($1000 for the men and only $200 for the women) she starts a campaign to even out the winnings. 

Heated debate ensues. 

This small town moves slowly and so does making change. Potato sack racing is taken very seriously, just like any other great Australian sport. There are passionate participants that don’t want the game changed.

Penny’s cousin, Nikki (Rachel Gordon), is one of them, dedicated to keeping the sport and prize money as it is. Winner of the women’s race for over 10 years, she doesn’t want her city-slicker cousin meddling in a sport she’s never actually run in. And the show’s organiser, Bev (Barb Lowing), agrees. 

But across the field is Penny’s Aunty Barb (Valerie Bader) and Syrian refugee Rania (Natassia Halabi), who believe change may be good for their town.

Penny discovers that to make real change in a community, you have to prove you are part of it.

This all female cast show us the brilliance when people work together. The ensemble is strong, with crisp exchanges jumping between banter and bickering, in particular the football scene with Munro and Gordon.

Bader may have been thrown into the role a few days before, but she fits right in to the Appleton cast. Her joyful energy ripples through the crowd every time she is on stage.

But it is truly an ensemble show, with seamless choreographed transitions expertly timed by stage manager Grant Gravener.

Michael Scott-Mitchell’s set draws us right into the country town, with a beaten down rusty Holden ute at the centre of it all. Leigh Buchanan has nailed the costumes; the flashback to 1988 is a highlight.

Priscilla Jackman directs a quintessential Australian story, with community at its heart. Clearly a crowd favourite, it received a standing ovation on opening night.

Read: Performance reviews: How to Shave and It’s Like a Circle, Melbourne Fringe Festival

Women’s sport is thriving right now, but when it comes to wages and recognition, The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race suggests that achieving gender equality starts in our own backyard.

The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race by Melanie Tait
Presented by Queensland Theatre
Bille Brown Theatre, Brisbane
Director: Priscilla Jackman
Set Designer: Michael Scott-Mitchell 

Costume Designer: Leigh Buchanan
Lighting Designer: John Rayment
Composer/Sound Designer: Brady Watkins
Stage Manager: Grant Gravener
Assistant Stage Manager: Nicole Neil
Cast: Rachel Gordon, Natassia Halabi, Barb Lowing, Libby Munro, Valerie Bader

Tickets: from $35

The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race will be performed until 28 October 2023.

Lisette Drew is a writer, theatre maker and youth literature advocate, who has worked nationally and overseas on over 50 theatrical productions. Her play, Breakwater, was shortlisted for two playwriting awards and her novel The Cloud Factory was longlisted for The Hawkeye Prize. In 2022 she received a Kill Your Darlings Mentorship and was a City of Melbourne Writer-in-Residence. Lisette shares her love for stories and storytelling running writing and theatre workshops for children.