“I think this is a world first – the world’s first piano play,” playwright Barney Norris enthuses. “But it’s also about connecting people with their own memories and their family history. It’s about who we are and what it’s like being alive for a bit.”
Barney Norris‘ new play The Wellspring is already creating quite a stir in theatrical circles.
Hardly surprising considering it features his father, the world famous pianist and broadcaster David Owen Norris and himself, award winning playwright, and Playwright-in-Residence at Oxford’s Keble College.
The pair air their relationship on stage through a co-written narrative interspersed with music, “bashed out on a tiny and very ropey Yacht Piano, which sounds very Tom Waits,” Barney promises “more like you’d find in a pub.”
“But then he (dad) is really good at it so he will play Beethoven, Handel, Elgar, all sorts of well known and lesser known music, as well as his own, because he composes as well. It’s essentially a journey through music, but it’s humorous and gratifying at the same time.”
“I WAS WORRIED WE WOULD BE COMPARED TO JACK WHITEHALL AND HIS DAD, SO YES I’M DELIGHTED PEOPLE LIKE IT”
The results are funny, emotive and transporting, or as The Guardian put it ‘A bit like an Open University edition of Britain’s Got Talent’, having opened to rapturous reviews in Northampton last week.
Pleased? “I was worried we would be compared to Jack Whitehall and his dad,” Barney laughs, “so yes delighted.”
Based on Barney’s recent book about his father, he was asked if there was a play in it. Fast forward through Covid, and here we are. “It was a pre-pandemic idea that was just coming together when we first heard the word Wuhan,” Barney remembers. “There weren’t many pros, but Covid meant we could really concentrate on developing the idea and we co-wrote it together, both writing our own narrative.
“At the time my dad was 66 and I was 33, so we designed the story to meet in the middle, and while it looks at the communality of our cultural hinterland, and our mutual genetic material, we also highlight the unusual, and the differences between us.”
“My parents broke up when I was 6 and we moved from a hunting lodge on a country estate to central London. It was a total game changer”
Using their extensive ‘treasure trove’ home video archive made by Barney’s grandfather, Barney says: “it’s more about the three of us really. Perhaps I should have called it – The father, son and the ghost.
The ghost could also refer to Barney’s mother who brought him up, and whom he’s very close to, adding that his parents split couldn’t have been more seismic.
“My parents broke up when I was six years old and we went from living on a hunting lodge on a country estate to central London. It was a total game changer. ‘Return of the Mac’ was Number 1 when I went to my new school and until then I’d only heard Mozart. It was like life started again.
“I’d see my father at weekends and we’d tour the country going to famous battle sites. I’m now an expert on the War of the Roses,” Barney smiles.
“MY MARRIAGE FAILED AND I WAS LIVING IN MY CAR FOR A BIT. I ALSO HAD PTSD FROM HAVING MY HEAD KICKED IN IN OXFORD”“
The Wellspring also marks a turning point in Barney’s life, its inception coinciding with a particularly dark and difficult patch in his life.
“My marriage failed and I was living in my car for a bit. I also suffered from a fractured skull in 2008 when I had my head kicked in in Oxford and I think that began taking its toll. I think I’ve been dealing with PTSD for quite a while. Either way, it wasn’t where I’d expected to end up.
“Reinventing myself as a person has been incredibly stimulating and difficult, but doing this show has been invaluable. I thought it would be best to start with a bit of self examination and here we are.
“It meant peeling everything right back to the beginning and asking myself what I believe in, what I love, and then trying to regrow. It helped me to move on.”
So he’s enjoyed the process? “As a playwright it’s changed me and how I work for ever. Either way, it’s been joyous to make – it was pretty glorious actually.”
“The wellspring meant asking myself what I believe in, what I love, and then trying to regrow. It helped me to move on”
As for actually appearing on stage, Barney said: “I haven’t acted since 2010 when I stood in for someone who was ill in a student production at Oxford Playhouse, so it seems fitting to be back, having been a student at Keble, where I’m now Playwright-in-Residence. It’s been glorious actually.”
The Wellspring runs at Oxford Playhouse from Tuesday March 29 – Wednesday March 30. Book here: https://www.oxfordplayhouse.com/events/the-wellspring