Barney Norris  

Like David Storey (1933-2017) whom he admired greatly, Barney Norris, 35, is both a playwright and novelist. Susan Elkin met him.

As Barney Norris writes in two genres, I thought a bookshop would be the right place to meet. So we’re sitting congenially over coffee (him) and tea (me) in the basement café at Waterstones in Piccadilly. I was keen to meet this warm, friendly man because I’d seen his play, We Started to Sing, a couple of weeks before and felt that I’d already learned quite a lot about him and his family.

“It’s all about telling the truth and working out what plays are for”, he says as soon as we’ve settled, and I have my notebook out. “I think it’s important to show people what it was like there and then as accurately as possible although of course We Started to Sing is not the unmitigated truth about my family. My grandparents had just died when I wrote it and it seemed important to tell their stories.”

Barney comes from a musical family. His father is pianist, broadcaster and educator, David Owen-Norris – with whom Barney has created the show Wellspring. His mother and stepfather are both music professionals too. “I grew up in Salisbury where I did Youth Theatre at Salisbury Playhouse and took part in plays before eventually going to Oxford to read English.”

But the real turning point in his life was a book. “My godfather gave me a copy of Simon Callow’s Being an Actor and it’s so full of life and energy that I was thrilled and inspired” he says. “And I realised something important. If you live in a staunchly Conservative place like Salisbury, you cannot change anything by democratic vote but you can do something else. You can use art to make people begin to think differently.”

At Oxford he met playwright Peter Gill and did a fair amount of drama. Then, after Oxford came a one-off opportunity. There’s an endowed one-year Professor of Theatre post at Oxford who needs an assistant Drama Officer – it’s all line managed by Thelma Holt. “I got that post the year that Michael Frayn was Professor, and I met a lot of people.” One of his jobs there was “rescuing kids from bankruptcy”, by which he means that if a student production went to, say, Edinburgh and lost a lot of money, he would work out a way of putting it right for them by, for example, persuading a more successful student company to share some of their profits.

Thereafter he went unpaid, to assist Peter Gill at the Bush theatre and was homeless for a bit before being offered an airbed by an actor who took pity on him. “Then I went to Out of Joint to be Max Stafford Clark’s PA. I know it’s hard to talk about Max now that his sexual harassment habit has been made public, but for me it was a terrific opportunity” says Barney. “We did five productions, including Our Country’s Good in 49 theatres in eighteen months. It was the most amazing privilege and I learned such a lot.”

Barney is passionate about touring theatre. “It’s vital that people see ground-breaking theatre in their own neighbourhoods without having to travel to one of a handful of big cities” he says.

Barney’s novel Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain was published in 2016, followed by Turning for Home in 2019 and The Vanishing Hours a year later. “Would you like a book?” he asks me taking a proof copy of Undercurrent from his bag and explaining that this is the last in his current contract with Doubleday, which has paid him advances to live on during the writing period.

“But I’m working on a new one. I’m about 65,000 words in so it’s well on the way and my agent will sell it when we’re ready.” Barney is a notebook man. He shows me a tasteful leather coloured notebook filled with his neat handwriting. “I like handwriting especially for dialogue because you can’t hurry and it helps you to pace it properly” he says.

He is also working on a new play about John Constable and has co-written a play with Derren Brown, which will probably open in London later this year and then tour. “Yes, there are quite a lot of plates spinning” he says with a grin. “But if you’re going to live by the pen, you actually have to write quite a lot.”

Barney’s play We Started to Sing opened at Arcola Theatre on 19 May

His show, Wellspring, with his father David Owen-Norris, tours again later this summer.

Barney’s latest novel Undercurrent will be published by Doubleday on 25 August