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. It is a story that brims with humour, honesty and small-town charm.
“There’s a lot of love in this story, and in this community” says Director Anthea Williams, who 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, and Donna Brookbanks, who starred in The Women at The Court Theatre in 2013. Court newcomers Katrina Bayliss and Anne Chamberlain round out the cast.
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. The Appleton Ladies' Potato Race plays from 5 August to 9 September 2023.
"A must-see. There are no downsides to this polished, measured, and punchy work that says so much with such style.” The Music