A funny, compassionate, honest tale about feminism, culture clashes and potatoes

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There is a scene in The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race, the new Australian feature film adapted from writer Melanie Tait’s hit 2019 stage play, where a character named Joan serves her two grown sons their dinner in front of the TV.

The siblings, Gavin and Mark, played by Andy Ryan and Rohan Nichol, sit in armchairs like little boys, each adrift in personal crises spurred by loss of identity and purpose, in their fictional home town of Appleton. Joan, played by Robyn Nevin, eats alone at the dining table, watching concernedly over her children.

Robyn Nevin (right) plays Joan, a pillar of a country community, with Genevieve Lemon in The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race.Credit: Lisa Tomasetti

It’s a brief, dark glimpse at life for some in a country town. Tait, a playwright, journalist and screenwriter who also wrote the film’s screenplay, calls it her favourite scene.

“It’s so pitch perfect to what I wrote,” she says. “I think it’s what Appleton is like in my imagination. I’ve spent a lot of time in Australian country towns and there’s usually a bit of grubby along with the beautiful countryside.”

The “grubby” within The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race, a sparky, funny, compassionate and honest tale about feminism, potatoes, culture clashes and what home means, is rooted in unemployment and fading traditional roles.

“Joan’s got these two boys who are so lost,” Tait says. “They were once probably young men full of hope, but middle age and time have caught up with them. What do you do?”

For Joan, the family matriarch and pillar of Appleton, you hold firm and resist change, even if it comes from a well-meaning and respected daughter of the town.

Inspired by a true story, The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race begins with Penny Anderson, a successful GP who moves from the big smoke to her home town, the fictional rural idyll Appleton.

Playwright Melanie Tait says she modelled The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race on sports movies. “I love them. There’s a rhythm to sports movies.”Credit: Louie Douvis

Penny’s story in Appleton is drawn from Tait’s experiences five years ago with her own home town, Robertson, in the NSW southern highlands.

Tait discovered the annual potato sack-carrying races, a highlight of the Robertson Show since 1969, awarded unequal prize money for the men’s and women’s races. Both required carrying a bag of potatoes 400 metres around the showground but the men’s winner received $1000 and the women’s $200.

Although the bags were different weights – men carry 50 kilograms and women 12.5 kilograms – Tait felt the entertainment value of each race was equal. She leapt into action, raising $800, before contacting the race organisers to provide equality to the prizes.

But show officials were not keen. Debate raged in the town and Tait and her parents, who until recently owned Robertson’s Big Potato landmark and local supermarket, faced animosity.

Tait’s experiences, which shook her sense of being a local, spurred her to write a play, a comedy examining equal rights, inequity and a clash of cultures.

After a successful season at Ensemble Theatre in Sydney in 2019, productions of The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race have toured Australia since.

Like the play, Tait’s screen adaptation is a love letter to her hometown. It is not full of villains, blame or one-sided justice but rather everyday townspeople and the changes and debates taking place in communities across the country .

Claire van der Boom, who plays Penny, was drawn to Tait’s crisp, witty script and genuine characters, who are both flawed and affecting.

Claire van der Boom believes audiences will recognise themselves in the film’s people and places.Credit: Lisa Tomasetti

“It’s very much a story about gender parity, but it’s also about listening to community, having compassion and understanding for family members and, essentially, sticking up for what is right,” she says. “But doing it with patience and kindness.”

“I think audiences will recognise themselves somewhere in there. It is quintessentially Australian but they’re not caricatures. They’re interesting, loveable, dry, real Aussie characters.”

Van der Boom, whose career includes Australian TV series Love My Way, the Hawaii Five-O reboot, Steven Spielberg-produced mini-series The Pacific and movies Blacklight and Palm Beach, is conscious of the film’s varying topics, from feminism and equity to unemployment and drug use, particularly among men.

“The statistics are telling us loud and clear there is a problem in our rural communities especially,” Van der Boom says. “The suicide rates are terrifying among young men in rural communities.

“We can’t ignore that but we do have to go gently with change. We need to make space for more women or more diversity, but also support people that are struggling.

“That’s why I think it’s lovely in this script, the character of Penny is saying, ‘Let’s talk about this. I don’t want to just upset everyone’.”

Tait, whose past plays include The Vegemite Tales and A Broadcast Coup, says adapting this play, which came after a commission from Ensemble Theatre, into a film has been an eye-opener.

“It’s been such a ride,” she says. “In an ideal world, there would have been a bit more time. But the process has taught me a great deal.

“I modelled The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race play and screenplay on sports movies. I love them. There’s a rhythm to sports movies.

“There’s always somebody who thinks they can’t do whatever they’re doing. There’s a challenge. And something always happens, either before or after the battle, where you think all is lost. But then everything works out.”

In The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race, which also stars Genevieve Lemon, Katie Wall and Tiriel Mora, the sport of the competition is taken seriously. Penny’s sister Nikki, whose partner is Mark, is the reigning women’s champion. Working and raising her children almost singlehandedly, Nikki approaches competing in the potato race with utter conviction.

“She cares about it the way a sprinter cares about racing at the Olympics,” Tait says. “It’s high stakes and the only thing in her life that is entirely for her.”

Filmed in Bundanoon and Robertson, the location for films Babe and Babe: Pig in the City, The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race, which is directed by Lynn Hegarty, known for Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries and A Place to Call Home, roused friendly curiosity from locals.

“Our producer went to the local radio station one morning,” Van der Boom says. “They said, ‘Can anyone please turn up to the local hall for a community meeting [in the film]?’ And so many people turned up it was amazing. They seemed really proud and supportive of us being there.”

In 2019, the Robertson Show’s men’s and women’s potato races awarded equal prize money. And, on the cusp of her first produced screenplay’s airing on TV, Tait is midway through writing five play commissions.

“I’m so glad this is a movie rather than a series,” she says. “I’ve only got time to watch movies at the moment. It’s this full 90 minutes, you watch it in one, and I love that.”

The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race is on Ten and 10 Play on Wednesday, July 26, at 7.30pm and Paramount+ from July 27.

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