Breaking down stigma, challenging genre, and facilitating conversation – the new musical, ‘Nice Guy’

A visit to the Oxfordshire charity 'Clean Slate' with the cast of new musical 'Nice Guy'

Source: Sam Norman

TW/CW: Domestic abuse, abusive relationships

It’s 8:30am on a Tuesday morning in first week, and I am on a bus out of Oxford. With me are the cast and a co-writer of a new musical, Nice Guy, coming to the BT Studio in third week. Our journey takes us just outside Bicester, to a quiet business park which is home to the Oxfordshire charity, Clean Slate. Clean Slate provides support for survivors of various forms of abuse, and these headquarters we visit in Bicester facilitate services like counselling and support groups, both for male and female survivors.

On arriving at the site, I am unsure what to expect. Our group is welcomed by the pair who founded Clean Slate: mother and daughter Anji Hall and Nadia Brown respectively, and they introduce us to their charity and the work they do with an enthusiasm and passion that is humbling. The premise of our visit is that the cast of Nice Guy attend one of the charity’s weekly support groups for survivors of domestic abuse. Such an opportunity is hugely important for those behind this new musical, which tells the story of a female protagonist, ‘Isla,’ played by Grace Albery, and the unfolding of her increasingly abusive relationship with the seemingly charming ‘Dash,’ played by Alex Buchanan.

The support group begins with some hesitation, but slowly, as we each grow accustomed to the new faces around us, the women begin to open up, telling us about their weeks, and silence is soon replaced by group conversation. Quickly, discussion about everyday problems like childcare shifts into wider conversation about how society should approach solving the widespread issue of domestic abuse. At this point co-founder Nadia rightly emphasizes the need for society to strip the issue back to its roots, and prioritize the education of our children. As the support group goes on, the women reveal some details of their personal experiences. Sitting in this circle, each of us of different ages, backgrounds, and genders, there is a sense that we are all suspended on an equal level – judgements and presuppositions are put to one side, and what we are being asked to do is simply listen.

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Later, I sit down to discuss the musical further with co-writers Sam Norman and Aaron King, and the production’s director, Miranda McKay. Co-writer Sam Norman tells me how influential his first visit back in February to Clean Slate was for the development of Nice Guy. He tells me how early conversations with Anji and Nadia helped him to flesh out the musical from initial, scattered thoughts into the finished product. Collaborating with Clean Slate, Norman insists, will hopefully work to reduce the stigma surrounding abusive relationships, because, at present “it’s not an issue people like to think about.”

I ask the co-writers more about their writing partnership, and King informs me that the duo initially met over email before they did their first show together at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016. In Oxford, the pair are known for the production they wrote and subsequently put on this time last year at the O’Reilly, a musical adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac. This production received widespread acclaim, but was in nearly every way possible different to Nice Guy, rooted in the pageantry of a seventeenth century French court with music that Norman himself describes as “stately.” The concept behind Nice Guy, King tells me, came “out of a contrast to Cyrano.” The pair were keen to focus on a subject that was more “gritty,” the Burton Taylor Studio providing the venue for a musical that was distinctly “intimate.” We discuss the conventions surrounding the genre of musical theatre, and Norman rightly points out that increasingly musicals are drifting “away from a can-can style,” instead becoming weightier and more nuanced in subject matter.

“But why this subject matter in particular?” I wonder. For co-writers Norman and King, and as for so many of us, this issue has affected them in their lives at some point. I reflect that abusive relationships are more prevalent than many of us would like to think, and elements of abuse can permeate the many relationships that surround us. Like with many things, we should instead consider abusive behaviour on a spectrum. Abuse and abusive behaviour is certainly not an issue that we should keep at arms length, because that only serves to further perpetuate the ever-damaging stigma around it. I, for one, applaud this creative team for bringing this deeply important issue to the fore, and look forward to seeing the production, at the BT Studio from 23rd October.

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Many thanks to Clean Slate. Visit their website: cleanslate.org.uk

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