The Wellspring at Royal & Derngate, Northampton – review

The autobiographical drama from the father-son duo of Barney and David Owen Norris is also set to tour into the summer

David Owen Norris and Barney Norris in The Wellspring
David Owen Norris and Barney Norris in The Wellspring
© Robert Day

When playwright Barney Norris decided to quiz his father, the acclaimed pianist and composer David Owen Norris, about his life and work, the result was a book of interviews between the pair. When Royal & Derngate artistic director James Dacre invited Norris junior to turn the interviews into a stage play, a whole new lease of life was granted to their collection of recollections.

But to call this production a theatrical adaptation of a book of personal interviews is to undersell it to a colossal degree. Billed by the Norrises as ‘a memory cycle', what they offer is a mesmerising, enchanting, entertaining and uncategorisable assemblage of ideas, motifs and metaphysical musings, framed notionally around their two life stories but encompassing a much broader canvas: this is an extraordinary elegy to fathers, families and the creative spirit.

Most closely resembling a song cycle – hence the ‘memory cycle' description of its creators – The Wellspring is a brave and beautiful tribute to their relationship, born of a working-class couple in rural Northamptonshire (Norris senior's parents) and subject to familial division in the shape of divorce and numerous more or less hairy escapades in their two lives. That they have survived to tell this tale together is testament to the emotional power of the artistic drive they both share.

The song cycle framework is deftly exploited: successive anecdotes are told using monologues, classical pieces, folk songs and family video footage. It's elegantly constructed and beautifully presented, with one Norris handing over seamlessly to the other as their individual stories gradually intertwine, heavily laced with humour and self-deprecation.

David plays his rather rickety travel piano with a sublime grace, and sings with a tone to match, while Barney's lilting folk interpretations carry a plaintive quality that echoes the lyricism of his writing, threading the themes and drawing them together with a craftsman's skill.

Director Jude Christian rightly exercises a light touch, using props and furniture sparingly but to great effect, while Rosie Elnile and co-designer Tomas Palmer's design, Jack Weir's lighting and Megan Lucas's video design accentuate the story in a way that emphasises the importance of the narrative – exactly as the script highlights.

None of the discrete elements of the production feel forced. Instead, everything is there to serve the storytelling, something the playwright Norris explicitly draws attention to. He's quite open about the fact that the older he gets, the more he believes his writing has a duty to tell the stories of those who have gone before. And that includes his father.

The fact that Norris senior so clearly relishes the opportunity to tell their stories side by side must surely be a joyous added bonus.