Theatre

Michelle Law’s body-swap play, Top Coat, is a fun ride – but don’t look for any real profundities. By Cassie Tongue.

Top Coat

John Batchelor, Arisa Yura, Kimie Tsukakoshi and Amber McMahon in Top Coat.
John Batchelor, Arisa Yura, Kimie Tsukakoshi and Amber McMahon in Top Coat.
Credit: Daniel Boud

There was no shortage of body-swap comedies in the 2000s. Disney’s 2003 remake of Freaky Friday is probably the most popular, but the concept also popped up in 2002’s The Hot Chick and the live-action/animated film revival of the Scooby-Doo franchise, 2006’s It’s a Boy Girl Thing – executive produced by Elton John – and even briefly in 2007’s Shrek the Third.

Australia was onto the trend a little early: Megan Simpson Huberman’s Dating the Enemy, starring Claudia Karvan and Guy Pearce as a couple who switch bodies after an errant wish during the full moon, hit screens in 1996. These films – some more driven by the body-swap concept than others – are united by their use of comedy to explore bigger questions about lived experience. They also share a narrative language shot through with fast, funny scripting and a love of remixing culture into something new.

These stories expressed the hopeful optimism of the early 2000s. They told us that bridges of difference could be crossed if we all understood each other a little better and that in the end, after a laugh or two, we might learn something from walking in each other’s shoes.

Top Coat, Michelle Law’s body-swap comedy for Sydney Theatre Company, is a love letter to and descendant of these films. In a moment that breaks the fourth wall to wink knowingly at the audience, a prop newspaper declares the “new Freaky Friday sequel” is a flop. It also evolves from Law’s own theatrical canon, building out the comic muscle we first saw in 2017’s Single Asian Female (La Boite) and injecting the genre’s farce and politics with a throwback simplicity. This is a play that prizes clarity over complexity, delivering a happy ending in which each of the body-swappers are changed, and their respective corners of the world become a little brighter.

Winnie (Kimie Tsukakoshi) works at a nail salon with her friend Asami (Arisa Yura). A skilled nail artist, she is on the verge of opening her own shop where, just maybe, she’ll find the right words to shut down racist customers on the spot. But first, she has to deal with Kate (Amber McMahon), a wealthy white woman who is a programming executive at the Multicultural Broadcasting Corporation, whose offices are upstairs.

Kate is impatient and entitled. She’s convinced she’s progressive – she frequently invokes the spirit of the suffragettes, many of whom fought only for the voting rights of white women – and assumes that she’s helping her assistant Yuko (Yura again) advance in the workplace, even as she exploits her identity for labour. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that her highly qualified Aboriginal colleague Marcus (Matty Mills) might have deserved her job more than she did.

After all, Kate feels persecuted every day: her boss, Barry (John Batchelor), expects her to do his work as well as hers. She’s oblivious to struggles beyond her own. She’s also oblivious when her boyfriend, Jamie (Batchelor again), sexually harasses Asami when the couple stop by the salon for some pampering.

After that incident, Winnie never wants to see Kate again, but an emergency nail repair brings Kate back to the salon after closing time and a mysterious electric surge – classically vague and perfectly on-theme in the body-swap genre – causes the women to switch places.

Shenanigans, naturally, ensue. Winnie fakes her way through Kate’s job and delights in spending her cash, which feels like a gleeful redistribution of wealth. Wearing the armour of Kate’s white, upper-class heritage gives Winnie a holiday from racist microaggressions and, as she gets to know Kate’s co-workers, she begins to make pathways for equity at the station. When the star drama in Barry’s upcoming programming faces online backlash, it’s Winnie-as-Kate who finds an elegant solution.

Kate, on the other hand, drowns in Winnie’s life. She doesn’t know how to deal with difficult customers or how to give a manicure, and at first can’t accept Asami’s solidarity and friendship in the hard moments. But as the women try to get back to their own lives, they find a path towards each other.

Both Tsukakoshi and McMahon deliver perfectly pitched, clever performances, grounded in a high-concept comedy language that Courtney Stewart has lovingly cultivated with her smart and playful direction. Each performance has fine details that feel like in-jokes to those who notice the small amid larger chaos: how McMahon, stiff-fingered, delivers a hand massage to a customer; how Tsukakoshi tries out Kate’s posh accent, deploying it as though she’s getting away with a crime.

But the production’s ethos is delightfully maximalist. The body swap happens in a sequence of blackouts and broad physical tableaux while the salon’s maneki-neko flashes red laser-like beams from each eye. The script favours big laughs, which make space for bold choices and broad line deliveries that require, if not familiarity with the twinkly eyes of this genre, at least an audience willing to appreciate silliness.

This does go deeper than style, though style is foregrounded. Like all good comedies of errors, the high jinks of mistaken identity or misplaced power are reinforced with subtle commentaries on access, inequity and the systems that perpetuate them. And, as with all good comedies of manners, the chaos as social contracts are broken reveals which ideals are holding us back. It questions how and why different types of labour are valued and makes space for an earnest speech or two.

Conforming to the styles and features of a particular convention might make a play more predictable, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. Top Coat delivers a solid twist on a pet device that feels in conversation with the bright fever-dream production design of 2000s teen movies, all brightness and bold fashions and earworm soundtracks. The secret is that Law and director Stewart delight in theatricality.

Designer James Lew’s modular set adds motion to the play. Each module is painted a candy-bright shade: blue, pink, purple, yellow. Kate Baldwin’s lighting design plays with colour, space and drama to heighten the mood and also, when required, to ground the moment back in reality. Michael Toisuta’s composition and sound design is part of the narrative and set choreography, perhaps most noticeably on display during scene transitions as the pieces move around and re-form to a new location and during a montage in which Winnie, now in Kate’s body, spends big on clothes and fine foods.

The musical medley driving that montage is witty and referential, even including a giddy performance of the viral TikTok dance to the second verse of Lizzo’s About Damn Time (the dance created by 22-year-old dancer Jaeden Gomez and later popularised by the artist). Everything can be made new through fresh eyes.

It might all be a bit much. Top Coat is occasionally earnest or glancingly didactic and it’s gleefully formulaic. But it’s hard to turn away from its great sense of play, fostered by the irresistible hand of Courtney Stewart: the script’s love of a good joke with a sting in the middle, the production’s embrace of hyper-theatricality, the joy of the production design making and unmaking its own world to play on those broader ideas of identity, temporality, and facade. It lightens the heart. 

Top Coat plays at Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney, until August 6.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 9, 2022 as "Skin deep".

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