The first half of Soften the Grey is near-perfect. Pitched at the ideal point midway between dramatic appeal and thoughtful profundity, rich with humour, it wins over viewers effortlessly. The second, unfortunately, is not. It becomes boggled down in the philosophy, takes on too much, and ultimately sacrifices precious plausibility.
If there is any disappointment to watching it, it’s only because bits of it are so uncommonly good.
This is a shame, because it has one of the best premises of a play I’ve seen: a man in a scuba-diving suit (Nigel Munson) stands before a receptionist (Jake Hassam) in a kind of entrance hall for death. He’s being questioned about his afterlife preferences, having drowned diving. Unlike most candidates, however, who are quickly dispatched to the appropriate afterlife, allocating him proves difficult.
Part of the cleverness of Soften the Grey lies in its reconciliation of religions and ideologies (including atheism) as all true: there is a heaven (and a hell) for Christians; a paradise provisioned with 72 virgins for those who aspire to it; and karma-adjusted resurrection for the Buddhism-inclined. Our diver is baptised, which makes treating him as a Christian easy in the bureaucratised “Citizens Advice Bureau,” but he objects: he hasn’t believed in God for most of his life. This is one of the places where cracks in the concept appear: surely if you could choose everlasting happiness, you would. If eternity spent singing hymns isn’t quite your cup of tea, well, the options are limitless.
But the diver resists. The Receptionist, increasingly impatient, makes escalating attempts to send him on. One of his powers is to transport them to moments in the diver’s life with the press of a reception bell. In these scenes Hasam proves truly talented at adopting accents — unsurprisingly, in retrospect, given that he works as a voice coach — and Munson is convincing as a regular guy with more to his past than you’d expect. Indeed, Soften the Grey is at its best when interrogating his relationships, notably with his father. The subtext (carpe diem) is omnipresent but never stronger than an undercurrent; in one great scene, the diver “gets it”, believing he is to be sent back now that he’s understood his mistakes. “No!” Replies the Receptionist with a hint of delighted schadenfreude. “Dead is dead.”
Soften the Grey is sure to captivate its audiences. If there is any disappointment to watching it, it’s only because bits of it are so uncommonly good.