4 February 2015

The review: Soften the Grey


Image: 6 Foot Stories

If you fancy a weeknight with a difference, look no further than production company 6 Foot Stories.

Last week, a friend and I watched 6FS’s Soften The Grey*, and I'm so glad we did!

We were initially apprehensive, having checked out the website and being met with, well, a lot of grey! We had no idea whether it would be an utterly sombre affair, so we prepared ourselves with a comforting Italian meal (from Cafe La Divina on Upper St, Islington - highly recommended) and a touch of wine.

But we needn't have worried; Soften The Grey - written, directed and performed by Jake Hassam and Nigel Munson at The Hope & Anchor - was a joy from start to finish.

As we took our seats, I noticed how sparse the staging was - a grey strip from wall to wall, a chair one end, and a desk and chair the other. All the props were draped with grey linens.

*Cue curtain*

The play opens with a light on a receptionist sat behind a table, taking notes bureaucrat-style, before the entrance of a diver, complete with wet suit and - to our amusement - flippers.

What follows is a barrage of questions from the receptionist to the diver: Who let the dogs out? What is the meaning of life? How many beans make five? - spat out so quickly, barely a breath between them, that the diver has no time to respond.

We learn that the diver has died - he ran out of oxygen during a cave exploration - and is now in purgatory, AKA, the Citizen's Advice Bureau for the dead, where he and the receptionist must establish his course of afterlife.

Even after your last breath, there are still major afterlife decisions to be made. Who knew?

For example, does being baptised make you a suitable candidate for heaven, regardless of whether you believe? With this in mind, should you go to Heaven? Is the receptionist God? Does God really exist? "He does if you want him to", we're told.

And then we delve deeper (if you excuse the diving-related pun) as the diver reflects on his life: the experiences that led him to make cruel choices, his regrets, his what-ifs. His mother leaving his father and incidentally abandoning him. The "fuck buddy" (their words, not mine!) Rachel who could have been the love of his life, if only he'd let her in. His refusal to attend his father's funeral. The relationship between him and his best friend, and the latter's sexual awakening.

It's touching, heart-breaking and funny in different measures. You experience one emotion after another, going back and forth and back again. There are twists and turns as the performance begs the audience to consider the bigger picture.

For instance, how to we define a worthy life? Is it a measure of fun? Of the love we've shared? Of achieved or failed ambitions? 

And if we do decide our life has been "bad" - is it really life's fault, or is it your own, because of the decisions you've made? Maybe, just maybe, you've missed out by not appreciating what you have.

After an insight into the diver's life, the vibe has become quite morose. 

But the receptionist has a suggestion - if life has been so painful, why not drink a potion to make you forget everything - all of the bad, and all of the good? Would you do it? No regrets, no failures, no hurt or heartbreak. It's an interesting one. It poses the question of whether ignorance is truly bliss.

I was pleased to see the diver decline this "liquid ignorance" in favour of remembering, with the fantastic reasoning "It was a crap kind of perfect - that's what made it real."

Don't you love that? Maybe it's the English Literature geek in me, but I love a good paradox.

The great thing about the play is just as you think it's going in one direction, it switches things up and takes another. You're never bored, and constantly engaged with this two-man show. The dialogue is whippet-fast and never lets up.

Finally, the characters partake in a heated discussion of the afterlife itself, whether to want/expect an afterlife is greedy and selfish: after all, we've had a life. Isn't that enough? Why can't we accept that some things have a natural expiry date? This struck me as alluding to our materialistic culture - what we have is never enough and we're never satisfied with our lot.

And that's the main issue for our diver protagonist: he can't make his mind up. He's a product of our society where we want to have our cake and eat it... and also have another cake in waiting if we get halfway through one cake and decide I MUST HAVE THE OTHER, JUST IN CASE IT TASTES BETTER. If pushed to make a decision which is unalterable for eternity, we panic. Sure, we can seek perspective, but it's ultimately our decision - and that's pretty darn terrifying.

For anyone wondering what the phrase "soften the grey" means, the play's dialogue actually offers a little insight. In response to the diver questioning the receptionist's motives, he says, "Look, I'm just trying to soften the grey, here, I'm trying to ease the pain of death." Deep, right? And upon asking the guys themselves, they elaborated a bit and explained that softening the grey is the act of making the mundane (the grey) less mundane, and essentially trying to loosen up. Both life and death shouldn't be taken so seriously.

Taking inspiration from Beckett, the performance had a very "Waiting For Godot" feel about it - the characters seemingly making progress yet going nowhere. I was most intrigued by the creative process of Soften the Grey - they told us the only aspect of the plot they were certain on was the end. Hassam and Munson took a ballsy but rather innovative approach of writing ten pages each, swapping, then continuing with another 10 pages, and so on. Having known each other since drama school in 2002, it wasn't as if the collaboration was completely barmy, but it's still a risky playwriting strategy. But it's testament to both their personal and professional relationship. The result was two plays which they then, in their words, intricately "blended" - and the final product is the one we were lucky enough to experience.

Although Soften the Grey isn't showing anymore (the last performance was at the end of the month), I'd definitely suggest looking out for future "6 Foot Stories" productions. For more information on 6 Foot Stories and their upcoming shows, click here.


*We were guests of 6 Foot Stories at The Hope & Anchor, Islington, but my opinions are real.
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2 comments

  1. This sounds so good- I'm disappointed that they've finished touring with it! I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for them in the future.

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  2. Sofie-Eliza Price5 February 2015 at 09:27

    Thanks Charlotte! I was a bit worried writing up a review because I've never done it before. They're definitely one to watch!

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