Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Jun 25 – Aug 6, 2022
Playwright: Michelle Law
Director: Courtney Stewart
Cast: John Batchelor, Amber McMahon, Matty Mills, Kimie Tsukakoshi, Arisa Yura
Images by Daniel Boud
Many great stories have been told, using the fantasy of switching bodies as conceit, to help us think about what it must be like to walk in others’ shoes. In Michelle Law’s Top Coat, a nail artist and a television executive jump into each other’s bodies, so that we may explore the differences of living on this land, in terms of race, status, and opportunity. It is about the disparities that exist, between being white and not being white, in colonised Australia.
Cleverly imagined, Top Coat challenges longstanding beliefs about meritocracy, by displacing two women from completely divergent backgrounds in the other’s occupation. While it comes as no surprise that Kate fails at providing the simplest of manicures, we are shaken to a realisation that Winnie has little problems playing with the big boys of tv land, simply by looking the part and talking big. The problem of course, is that the only way for Winnie to look the part, that is to become a white person, requires that her narrative be intervened with utter fantasy. Winnie can do the job, she simply will never be allowed to.
Top Coat is entirely outrageous, so it only makes sense to have the story presented as comedy. Laughs however, are few and far between. Law’s writing is wonderfully provocative, but many of her jokes prove less than effective. Director Courtney Stewart struggles to locate a suitable tone and style of farce, resulting in a production that delivers vibrant energy, but that only infrequently lands its punchlines. The moral of the story, and its political point though, are powerfully conveyed, for a show that is ultimately more entertaining with its ideas than for its humour.
Designer James Lew provides jubilantly colourful sets that are visually exciting, but that consume inordinately long amounts of time between scenes to establish. Michael Toisuta’s music intercedes to occupy those moments of transition, keeping the atmosphere spirited, and preparing our sensibilities for what is to follow. Lights by a proficient Kate Baldwin ensure our attention is maintained on relevant portions of the expansive stage, and memorable for playful instances making full use of the play’s comical supernatural aspects.
Actor Kimie Tsukakoshi brings great exuberance to the role of Winnie, with unwavering levels of commitment that keep us firmly on side. Amber McMahon is appropriately animated as Kate, able to make believable even the most bizarre of situations.
There is perhaps no real way for any person to know what it must be like to experience the world as someone else, especially when all our lives can be so vastly different. What we are capable of doing however, is to understand the nature of injustice and disadvantage, and to believe that efforts at seeking redress, should always be an ongoing concern in our democratic lives. Where people refuse to acknowledge uneven playing fields, as well as other manifestations of prejudice, those at the losing end need to find the wherewithal to fight for what is right.
For too long, Asian-Australians and other people of colour, have conformed to notions of the model minority, only to find ourselves as permanently subjugated and silenced second-class citizens. New discussions are now ongoing, as instigated by work like Top Coat, from a younger generation that has begun to see the requirements of politeness for the weapon that it is, in preventing us from ever having things our way. Rage brings people to breaking points, and that is where rules are dismantled.