Review: THE WELLSPRING. Salisbury Playhouse

Touching father and son music memory cycle

By: Oct. 13, 2022
Review: THE WELLSPRING. Salisbury Playhouse

Review: THE WELLSPRING. Salisbury Playhouse The Wellspring is a new father and son two-hander by award-winning playwright Barney Norris (Visitors, Eventide, Nightfall) and novelist (Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain, Undercurrent); and his father - pianist, composer and broadcaster David Owen Norris.

Wellspring means an abundant source of something, in this case an evening of loosely woven memories in words and music. The production's written by Barney and David, and includes everything from David's childhood in Northampton and Barney overcoming the terrors of staging his first play, to David discovering he could play music his own way after a bruising encounter in Paris with tutor Madame Lefébure and Barney surviving a vicious gang attack in Oxford.

Some of the themes are funny, such as David's engaging retelling of how he blagged his way through the Sydney Piano Competition. He didn't learn two concertos that were part of the repertoire and ended up trying to busk the Brahms D minor live on national television. Of course, it ends in tears and David doesn't touch a piano for six months. Luckily, David got over this ghastly experience and now plays so beautifully I think audiences attending The Wellspring could happily hear him play all night.

And Barney recalls singing Beatles songs ('Something in the way she moves') with his mate Jeb at Stonehenge. A wealthy American hired the duo to perform while he scattered his wife's ashes and "threw what remained of the woman he loved into the air". Barney wonders whether that shouldn't have stayed the biggest gig he ever played.

There are some interesting ideas here, like how both men discover their creativity. David's careful choosing of a black note on the piano to play a melodic tune leads to a life of highly successful composing, lecturing and performing. Meanwhile, Barney finds there's no better feeling than walking onstage and knowing it's okay for everyone to look at you.

The Wellspring is a tender unfolding of father and son recollections, but sometimes the script needs more clarity and the time shifts are a bit confusing. On occasion, things even feel a bit smug - David and Barney are in the know and we aren't in on the joke. If you didn't know anything about Barney or David (I'm a fan of both men and geekily read the play script in advance, but not every audience member will do this), maybe each providing an introduction to one another at the outset would help.

Equally, there are only hesitant references to how father and son relate to one another. I would love to hear more about how their relationship was affected by David's divorce from Barney's mother, and how father and son have learned to get along since.

Also, The Wellspring isn't best served by its technical backup. It felt lost in the larger auditorium at Salisbury Playhouse and the lighting was all to cock. Some of the house lights were up (why?) during the performance, and when they were dimmed to display a more intimate setting ­- mainly when David played the piano - the play really took off. It was also difficult to see the too small video screen with home movies shot by Barney's grandfather (again, the lighting didn't help here).

And I can imagine the ill-fated meeting when the concept of using lots of props from a trailer to create Barney's house and to even make soup live on stage (why?) was regarded as a good thing to do. A distracting and misjudged notion, alas, that doesn't add much to the storytelling.

Hopefully, some of these wrinkles will be sorted as the play continues on its tour of the UK. For at its heart, it tells us about growing up and finding oneself, how memories can vary and how patterns in families repeat themselves. A wellspring of ideas that deserve exploration.

The Wellspring is at Salisbury Playhouse until October 15, and then touring

Photo Credit: Robert Day


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