How can you use the musical medium to create real change? I have my reservations before seeing Nice Guy – a new musical explicitly focused on an abusive relationship – but as I look around a tear-tracked theatre, I realise the answer is there in the audience: by inspiring empathy. Nice Guy is a story of reaching out, and I have rarely wanted to help a character more than in this performance – a performance which, despite my initial reservations, feels incredibly at home in song.
The intimate Burton Taylor studio is the perfect place to host such a gathering, with the audience surrounding the action on three sides. There’s a certain sense of voyeurism, as we become complicit in Isla’s story – and yet the claustrophobic set still manages to capture both quiet moments of intimacy and the energy of dramatic outbursts.
The trio of actors are themselves outstanding, without a weak link between them. Ellie Thomas as Francine makes the most of a difficult role, bringing surprising depth to a supporting character with her beautifully strong voice. Alex Buchanan arguably has one of the hardest jobs as Dash – the eponymous ‘nice guy’ – yet it’s not impossible to see the character’s charming side in his small talk and chair-top dancing. But it’s Grace Albery as Isla who undoubtedly steals the show, performing with a quiet fragility and believability which gave me genuine shivers. The three balance well together, filling the stage with an effortless chemistry and perfect harmonies.
By far the stand out element, however, is Aaron King’s score, accompanied by Sam Norman’s lyrics. They are adamant that Nice Guy is ‘an unusual kind of musical’ – show tunes and jazz hands would hardly be appropriate. That is not to say that there aren’t moments of levity – Millennial anthem ‘Where Dreams Go To Die’ and first-date ‘Maybe’ are memorable highlights. The score is truly a gift that keeps on giving – from Isla’s unofficial theme of ‘Everything’s Fine’ reprised to horrifying effect, to the duets and three-part harmonies which adorn the piece with perfect balance. And just when it seems that the music has taken a back seat, clever spoken word creeps in, and I’m in awe as much as I am horrified.
Watching this piece is a difficult and at times nerve-wracking experience. It’s tempting to attempt to scour the earlier scenes for warning signs, an effort which left me confused by a twist in the third act. The production’s sensitivity to the matters which it deals with must be commended. It’s clear an extraordinary amount of thought has been put into this production, from the consultations with Clean Slate, a local domestic violence charity, to the information distributed in programmes, to the donation of a fifth of the ticket sales. Musicals often seem to fly high above reality, but King and Norman have created one firmly rooted in current issues, both gut-wrenching and informative. And it’s all the better for it.