Embroidered tablecloths and doilies hang on display in the foyer of Adelaide’s run-down, 620-seat Royalty Theatre as we enter. There’s a definite Country Women’s Association vibe, heightened by Kathryn Sproul’s set design, as we take our seats: corrugated iron flats; bunting and produce sacks; a huge tapestry overhanging the almost bare proscenium arch stage, announcing Appleton. Population 1557. The whiff of a dagwood dog hangs in the air, of theatrical comfort food.
The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race – yes, the title reminded me of the cosy period novel and film The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society too – is journalist and playwright Melanie Tait’s second play, premiered by Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre in 2019 and now given a new production by the State Theatre Company of South Australia. Like her first, the West End hit The Vegemite Tales, Appleton trades on a self-conscious antipodeanism, nostalgic and big-vowelled.
With its ensemble cast and sense of a hermetic community sealed in by equal parts ennui and gossip, it has something of the flavour of Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas’s 1954 “play for voices” about the inhabitants of a small Welsh fishing village. Just as Thomas’s Llareggub – “bugger all” backwards – was a fiction steeped in reality, so too has Tait drawn on real events and an actual place, her home town of Robertson in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, as the basis for Appleton and its goings on.
The plot, like much else about this play, feels instantly familiar. Penny (Anna Steen), a GP and the playwright’s surrogate, has returned to the small town following a stint in the big smoke and the dissolution of her marriage. She finds that little has changed since she moved away, including the fact that Appleton’s famous 108-year-old ladies’ potato race – “middle-aged women with drinking problems carting sacks of potatoes around a muddy field”, as local hairdresser Nicki (Sarah Brokensha) puts it – still offers its winner significantly less prizemoney than the men’s event. The ladies’ race committee, spearheaded by the vinegary Bev (Carmel Johnson) and the effervescent Barb (Genevieve Mooy), is divided by Penny’s attempts to gain equity.
As word of Penny’s efforts to raise the amount of the women’s prize filters into the community and the dark, distorting mirror of Facebook, the town’s social fabric begins to fray like an old wall-hanging. While the medium may be relatively new – as anyone who has spent any time in a Facebook community group will know, there are few more brutal online spaces – the battlelines are drawn along old culture war lines.
Penny meets resistance (from the bullheaded Nikki) and manufactures support (from the principled Rania, a Syrian refugee, played by Susie Youssef). On the way, the play touches on themes of belonging and polarisation – “What matters is that you feel part of the community,” says Barb – without ever digging too deeply beneath its light and breezy surface. As its title suggests, this is a work of carbohydrates rather than protein.
The play hits a lot of familiar beats, but is somehow curiously shapeless at the same time. There’s no climax to speak of; plot threads, such as Bev’s never fully explained tremors, are left hanging and, aside from the predictable softening of the more hard-nosed characters, there’s little in the way of personal change or revelation.
Despite enjoyable, skilfully rendered performances and the still too rare presentation of an all-female ensemble, the characters are almost all tropes of one variety or another. Penny is a lesbian feminist killjoy, Rania an exotic foreigner (“in my country…”) and “model minority”.
In her program note, Tait writes that she hopes “this play will one day be a museum piece”. She presumably means that she sees a certain kind of social progress rendering its commentary on female empowerment redundant. But for all the play’s invocations of contemporary feminist phenomena such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, it’s already all rather old-fashioned, an exercise in nostalgia for a future that, but for a few, mostly symbolic, victories for white feminism, looks a lot like the past. As Rania rather oddly cautions Penny: “Things changing slowly, it means stability.”
Towards the end of the play, Nikki corrects herself to say “women” rather than “chicks” and I found myself thinking of the furore that greeted English working-class comedian Russell Brand when he referred to women as “birds” in a now famous BBC Newsnight interview. As the critic Mark Fisher pointed out at the time, the flak – which Brand said he would take on board – largely ignored the question of class and what Brand called his fondness for “proletariat linguistics”, painting him as an out-and-out sexist, regardless of anything else he may have said.
I think Tait does something similar to Brand’s critics here. While she employs the language of collectivism, it rings hollow. The ultimate victory belongs not to the working-class women of Appleton, or indeed to some more expansive sisterhood, but to Penny herself – queer, yes, but white, middle class, university educated and utterly confident in her own righteousness in a way that only those markers of privilege can confer. While there’s something heartening – and, actually, very funny – about the way Tait makes it clear that Penny’s is not the first attempt to dismantle the potato race’s historical sexism, it’s telling that this feminist lineage is only able to encompass another privileged white woman, Barb, and not the refugee Rania, who remains depressingly tokenistic to the end. There’s something galling and not a little unself-reflecting on Tait’s part in the conceit of a middle-class outsider policing the cultural politics of a working-class community.
While the play is in motion, none of this seems to matter too much. Tait’s sharp and funny dialogue rings with journalistic verisimilitude and is peppered with memorable one-liners. Director Elena Carapetis, a State Theatre stalwart helming her second production for the company after 2019’s End of the Rainbow, directs with her usual warmth, and makes the most of the play’s opportunities – such as a flashback to the 1988 potato race – to bring a genuine sense of fun and visual invention to the material. The action is kept loose and brisk, relying on a few props and Sproul’s clever, tombstone-shaped pull-downs that function as various pieces of furniture.
But the more I thought about it afterwards, the more the play’s blind spots troubled me. “We don’t like it when outsiders speak up in this country,” Penny observes at one point. She’s damn right, of course, but then again it’s only Penny who ends up finding her voice. More’s the pity.
The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race is at the Royalty Theatre, Adelaide, until June 19.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 12, 2021 as "Country matters".
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