Review by Anja Bless
Sometimes, to truly understand the discrimination someone else faces day in, day out, requires you to take a walk in their shoes. Michelle Law’s Top Coat, currently showing at Sydney Theatre Company, takes this idea rather literally. In a Freaky Friday-esque body swap scenario, Top Coat is about the events that unfold as Chinese-Australian manicurist, Winnie (Kimie Tsukakoshi) and white TV executive Kate (Amber McMahon) switch bodies.
Using an exuberantly colourful, dynamic, and playful set by James Lew, supported impeccably by lighting designer Kate Baldwin, Top Coat weaves its way through the nuances and challenges of tackling racism in modern Australia. From the micro-aggressions, degrading stereotypes, tokenism, and outright racial slurs, Winnie and Kate (in Winnie’s body) experience it all. But in spite of some of this heavy content, this show is light and fun – drawing on slapstick humour and brilliant comedic timing from Matty Mills (playing Marcus), Arisa Yura as Winnie’s manicurist-in-crime, Asami (as well as TV writer, Yuko), and John Batchelor as a series of obnoxious and interchangeable white characters. The use of Batchelor as the ‘token white performer’, stepping into a series of different characters (at times three in one scene) is just one of the ways in which Top Coat turns the tables on racist theatre practices, including token and indiscriminate casting of actors of colour.
However, not all of the messaging in Top Coat is as subtle, and there are moments where the dialogue falters into explanatory mode which feels out of step with the comedic tone of the show. Winnie’s anger at the racism and discrimination she faces is clear and well-grounded, however it is too often expressed in a singular, what can only be described as ‘shouty’, tone that is mirrored by the other actors. This consistent high volume and high pace style doesn’t allow the characters to bring dynamism to their emotions, or explore their feelings in more depth or with further subtlety. Director Courtney Stewart has excelled in creating a fun, bright, and exciting production. However given the content of the script, there may have been room for more light and shade in the tone and to give the characters some quieter, more reflective moments.
Giving voice to the lived experience of every day Australians and immigrants of Asian background is well overdue in Australian theatre. It’s fantastic to see somewhere like a nail salon, so often in the background as just a setting for television and other media, shown in such a positive light on stage. The stories in an around that setting may have in fact been more than enough to explore the themes of Law’s Top Coat, without the body-swap trope. The joyful friendship between Minnie and Asami, their interactions with customers, and their lives outside and beyond the salon were easily engaging enough for an entire show.
Nonetheless, Top Coat is a fun and exciting play to see on the stage of the Sydney Theatre Company. Giving well overdue space and attention to stories that represent more accurately the experience of Australians, starting to colour in the white wash that has been Australian theatre.