Nice Guy is not the first mention or examination of domestic violence in music, but it is an intriguingly bold change of direction for the partnership of scriptwriter and producer Sam Norman and composer Aaron King, who pulled off a succès fou with their boisterous Cyrano de Bergerac just a year ago this week. The drama has been put together with input from Clean Slate, a local charity specialising in providing therapy to victims of domestic abuse, and a number of the cast and crew recently visited the charity to inform themselves of its work and meet people there.
Our three-hander gets off smoothly and quietly as we discover Isla (Grace Albery), a Creative Writing (detective fiction) student who's just moved to London, chilling out in an armchair, then standing to deliver her opening song Everything's Fine in first a winsome, then an increasingly strong voice. We follow her as she settles in her new surroundings, in quick succession meeting and singing with a temping waitress friend, Francine (Ellie Thomas) and then in More than Meets the Eye with a new boyfriend, Dash (Alex Buchanan): 'an artist and a Marxist and not obviously gay!' - the song's pregnant with hope and promises. My first tremor of anxiety occurred when, at the prompting of Francine, who is up front if not obsessed with sex, they discuss their number of sexual partners and the ages of their first sexual experiences. Isla is already revealed to have had an upbringing ravaged by loss, and now we learn she lost her virginity at 13. This feeling was made the more acute by subsequent references to Shakespeare's Juliet (not yet 14 in Romeo and Juliet's Act I) and her treatment by powerful forces around her.
Grace Albery has to make of Isla a young woman who's vulnerable but possessed of the inner strength to have survived early tragedy and blossom into someone determined to succeed as a writer. The actor's challenge here is to inspire the interest of the audience in someone who risks seeming a bit passive and in the shadow of her more flamboyant friends, perhaps a reactor rather than a protagonist. This Albery does beautifully, not least in the songs where the form of the music requires her to generate her own melody while the band accompanies, rather than having the easier task of following its melody. Before the end, I think during So Damn Nice, her last solo song, the poignancy of Albery's performance had caused some of the audience to have tears in their eyes.
I've seen Alex Buchanan in lots of student plays and this - he told me it's his swansong - is his finest hour. He has the enormous advantage of Sam Norman's script, contemporary in its verbal trappings but timeless in its core treatment, which describes a careful arc of progression in Dash's attitude towards his lover, not least in the way key passages are reprised to increasingly torrid effect. Dash's cleverness turns to cruelty, his energy to power-seeking and his kindness curdles to blind selfishness as he counts the money cost of succouring Isla and her sick father. Unlike many student actors, he knows how to express strong emotion without constant recourse to shouting, and when he does raise his voice the effect is shocking. The force in his use of weasel phrases like 'calm down!' and 'you're very pure', his menacing bombast in 'I'm large; I contain multitudes' and in his I don't want a fight song is chilling. This is a little jewel of acting.
As Francine, Ellie Thomas is granted a relatively short playing time, yet still manages to suggest someone a bit larger than life but rooted in reality, perhaps inclined to self-centredness but demonstrative of sympathy. Ellie is vivid, warm, sings forcefully and makes an urgent impact.
Director Miranda Mackay squeezes every last drop of juice out of this material. She switches the spotlight at speed between the three characters; cues are notably snappy; she has Dash talking over Isla on occasion, but never overdoes it; she finds just the right balance between the actors' stillness at key moments and sufficient movement without restlessness; she generates a pressure-cooker atmosphere in the space; she has created a palpable camaraderie among her three players.
Aaron King's songs are tuneful, never sentimental and skilfully integrated with the psychological thrust of the script. Musical direction and constant, sympathetic presence at the piano keyboard comes from Alex Butt, backed by Chris Hill (flute and clarinet), Georgina Lloyd-Owen (cello) and Chris Cottell (percussion).
The BT Studio's already small seating capacity is this week pared down from paucity to outright famine. The challenge now facing the production is to find a rather larger venue for its second coming; it would be a crime for it to disappear. In the meantime, the lucky few this week who hold tickets can congratulate themselves on their foresight or fortune as they wait to be galvanized by the intensity of the subject matter and dazzled by its artistic quality.