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Thursday, November 10, 2022

The Wellspring review – a father and son’s musical ode to memory | Theatre

Ticketing websites divide shows for ease of browsing into genres: drama, comedy, musicals etc. A sifting algorithm would short-circuit with The Wellspring. It’s partly a top-class concert, in which pianist David Owen Norris exquisitely samples Clementi, Grainger, Elgar and others. These recitals interleave and sometimes underscore monologues by the musician and his son Barney that are autobiographical and also geographical: both have lived in Northamptonshire, where The Wellspring world-premiered, and neighbouring Oxfordshire, where it plays next week.

Rarely can a father and son have been so physically dissimilar – David bird-like, Barney bearish – but it is equally unusual for so such multicreative talent to be present on one stage. Barney is a playwright (Visitors, Eventide), novelist (Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain) and poet (two examples in the programme), while one of the pieces David plays is his own composition. Both also deliver a cappella lieder and folk songs, including one with a startling twist.

David Owen Norris and son Barney Norris in The Wellspring.
Part concert, part cook-off … David Owen Norris and son Barney in The Wellspring. Photograph: Robert Day

Accordingly the evening sometimes feels like an Open University edition of Britain’s Got Talent – or, when Barney cooks soup live on stage to aid reminiscence of a holiday, MasterChef – but each element is relevant to a show that gently but deeply explores the percentage contributions of genes, parenting, luck and maybe fate to who we are.

Based on a 2018 small-press book of conversations between the pair, The Wellspring is subtitled “a memory cycle” and the 70 elegant minutes of Jude Christian’s multimedia production (including projected Norris home videos) are structured around set-piece anecdotes.

David recounts a disaster involving a misplaced bar at a Sydney piano contest and three years spent accompanying Women’s Institute choirs in a Malcolm Williamson cantata about celebrated heroines. Barney’s stories are generally darker, including a period of serious self-doubt and a violent assault in Oxford. With the precise selection of detail that drives all his writing, he notes, when smashed on the head with a road sign, that the improvised weapon warns: changed priorities ahead.

For a Northampton first-night audience, there were nostalgic sighs at references to lost and remaining landmarks, but there is a universality in the Norrises’ reflections on the slipperiness of history (their memories of shared events can differ) and the sheer range of talents on display.

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