A new play by former ABC Canberra broadcaster Melanie Tait will grace The Playhouse stage early next month.
Inspired by real life events, The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race follows the story of Appleton, a small country town being forced to confront change.
The acclaimed playwright Tait conceived the work after her own experience in 2018 when she ‘upset the potato cart’ in her hometown, Robertson, NSW upon learning the women’s winner of the town’s annual potato race received less prize money than the men’s.
Director Priscilla Jackman and lead actor Sharon Millerchip have both been involved in the project since the early stages of creative development.
Millerchip said the work cleverly explores all the nuances of the topic in a very humorous, “Australian” way.
“There are some big issues discussed; there’s racism, homophobia, there’s the feminism and all of its guises, they’re big subjects,” she said. “When you wrap that up in a comedic context, they’re so much more palatable.
“It lands some pretty big punches in what it has to say, but it’s never demonstrative or preachy.
“We’re a funny lot, Australians. I think we respond to the comedy and I think that is Mel’s particular gift, she just writes with such a sense of mischief,” Millerchip said.
For Jackman, it’s been “a wonderful ride to get on board from the nucleus of the idea” and to collectively build the work with the creative team.
A long-time friend of Tait, Jackman remembers phone calls with the writer back when she was living out the real-life experience that inspired the play.
“When this series of events started to happen to her back in 2018, I was there for moral support, I suppose, watching the whole thing unfold,” Jackman said.
“I said to Mel ‘why are you putting yourself through this’, and she told me, ‘actually, I think my next play is in this’.”
Throughout the play’s creative development, Jackman cast a dramaturgical eye over the work, ensuring a sound dramatic rhythm and flow while also being a sounding board for Tait.
“I would help instigate some creative responses from Mel by working really closely with the actors, looking at character motivations and back story,” she said.
Having spent a lot of her career performing musical theatre where shows arrive “written, perfected, and performed on Broadway”, Millerchip found the chance to help shape her character of Penny to be a creatively fulfilling pursuit.
“As soon as I hear it’s a new Australian work my ears really prick up,” Millerchip said.
“To be part of a process where you take a seedling of an idea and develop it into a stage production is very exciting,” she said.
“We know the characters more organically than, say, if we were just learning them from the page.”
Millerchip said the “true affection” between the five cast members has been a “beautiful element” that has added to the potency of the storytelling.
“What has also happened to, I think, a really important ingredient in this play is the alchemy of all the personalities on the stage … That really develops when you’re all part of that process where you can organically make connections.”
After a 2019 run in Sydney, a national tour slated for 2020 was ultimately postponed. Jackman was elated by the opportunity now to share the work with audiences across Australia.
When the tour stops off near Shoalhaven, two full busloads will be coming down from Robertson, having booked out the entire theatre.
“We recognise these characters are part of our Australian richness,” Jackman said. “It’s really an opportunity for us to look in on ourselves.
“Melanie has very deep ties and a love of Canberra, she worked there for many years and is really excited to take it to her community and networks there.”
The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race will be performed at The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, 3-5 June; canberratheatrecentre.com.au