When is a play not a play? A possible answer to this is when it’s a Memory Cycle, which is how The Wellspring is described on the front cover of its play text. It’s always intriguing to watch a stage production that’s unusual in some way. Yes, it’s scripted, ergo, it’s a play. But when the two performers, playing a father and son, really are that very same father and son playing themselves, you know you’re going to see something out of the ordinary.
A few years ago, playwright Barney Norris worked with his father, musician David Owen Norris, on a series of interviews to tell the story of the older man’s unorthodox journey through his career in music. It was when Barney’s production of The Remains of the Day was being presented at the Royal and Derngate that it was suggested that he might work up those interviews into a play format. And this is the result – with the usual Covid-enforced delay that almost every new production has had to undergo, of course. It has the feel of a chat show, but without a host, where the guests just volunteer anecdote after anecdote without prompting. With Barney playing Barney and David playing David, you can assume they’ve got the characterisations spot on; and you can assume they’re telling the truth.
But can you? Memories can play tricks on you, and sometimes where one side believes something to be gospel, the other is convinced they’ve got it wrong; New Year’s Eves spent together – or apart – for example. On one occasion, Barney recalls hearing a rural 19th century song at a festival that blew his mind, as being such a brilliant insight into those hard times. But was it truly from that era? And if it blows you away, does it matter anyway? A lie can be much more rewarding than the truth. At the end of the play, Barney confirms that they’ve told a truth, not necessarily the truth; reality mixed with fantasy to create an end product, perhaps. Often old videotapes from Barney’s childhood are screened in the background, so that gives you an extra sense of truth. So, yes, it’s clearly autobiographical in style and presentation, but is it true autobiography? The audience must decide for themselves.
You can see why this is a Made in Northampton production. David was brought up in Long Buckby, went to Daventry Grammar School and spent much of his youthful leisure time in Northampton. Although his parents separated when he was young, Barney also spent many childhood weekends in the county, and, when he was 19, organised a music festival for his dad with gigs all around rural Northamptonshire. That local connection acts as another bridge between the Norrises and the audience.
The play is very beautifully written and performed with effortless ease. Individual moments from their past take on a whole new significance when explained in terms of the present day. I loved David’s recollections of standing on the bridge over the new M1 at Watford Gap, looking towards the north in one direction (because Watford Gap is traditionally where the north starts) and then looking south in the other (no one ever said that Watford Gap is where the south starts, but it must be by definition!) It’s one of T S Eliot’s still points in the turning world; rather like how he attributes his whole career to the one black note on the piano, B Flat, or how Barney lost his shyness when he realised it was ok for people to look at him when he was onstage in a junior school play. Tiny events such as these build into a life.
There are some great stories recounted; none as hilarious as David’s account of his appearance at the Sydney Piano Competition. There are also his tuition sessions with the scary Yvonne Lefébure in Paris, Barney’s reliving getting beaten up in Oxford, he and his friend Jeb playing Beatles songs at Stonehenge whilst an American guy scattered his wife’s ashes, and many more.
I can imagine that this is a difficult play to stage without it appearing too static. The old home movies and the constantly changing compass image work well to provide a little background movement. At one stage Barney rolls out a carpet on the stage, whilst he’s telling us about all the places in London he’s lived, even for the shortest time; a very rootless existence. The carpet emphasised his Wherever I Lay My Hat That’s my Home attitude to his rather nomadic lifestyle. A piano is onstage, for David to intersperse his recollections with snippets of music; and we see Grandad’s wonderful old music stand given pride of place next to it.
I’m not a fan of extraneous, unnecessary action on stage, and, during much of the first part of the play, we see Barney cooking – always something that an audience finds fascinating to watch. He and David sit down to eat it. But it’s never referred to in the text, we never know what he’s cooking, or why; and I did find that distracting. I also couldn’t understand why they painstakingly removed everything from sight at the end of the play; table, carpet, music stand, even the piano. It’s at odds with the concept that your memories are always with you – which is definitely one of the messages of the play. What was the point of hiding them away at the end? It felt like it was just to give the performers something to do; and whilst I understand the need for that, there also has to be a purpose to it. Just my little quibble.
The Wellspring only has a couple more nights in Northampton and then it will tour to various theatres and festivals, largely in locations that feature in their stories. Home is a moment that’s quickly lost, says Barney; afterwards you can only sail through the ghost of it. Charming, thought-provoking, and immensely nostalgic; private moments shared in that common hunt for home. At only 70 minutes with no interval, it fits neatly into a festival programme with admirable brevity of wit!
Production photos by Robert Day