Stuart Macbeth talks to the young playwright in residence at Keble about his career

Barney Norris’ first play gathered dust in his desk for four years. He had written At First Sight, a drama about two young people spending a New Year together in Salzburg, during his first year at Keble College in 2007.

But despite being active in college productions he refrained from showing anyone the manuscript.

“Oxford is very competitive,” he confesses. “The last thing I wanted to do was throw my first play into the university shark pit.”

Only during his final year of reading English did Barney risk sending his manuscript off, as an entry in the Drama Association of Wales’s One Act Play competition.

“I was very poor at the time,” the 28-year-old reflects, recounting how he had been tempted by the modest prize money. “My laptop had broken and I had been saving up for a new one. They only cost about £250, but even that would have put me behind with my rent.”

So when Barney received an e-mail inviting him to the award ceremony in Swansea he declined, unable to pay the train fare.

“And that’s when they wrote back telling me I had won. The prize money was just enough for my return ticket, one night’s B&B accommodation and to buy the cheapest laptop I could find. I am still using it today.”

At First Sight opened at the Burton Taylor Theatre in 2011, produced by Up in Arms, the company he had founded while at Oxford along with director Alice Hamilton and producer Chloe Courtney, at Trinity.

“Within Up in Arms is this core collective who make decisions, manage and run the company. We are producing steadily richer work,” he asserts.

This work includes Barney’s play Visitors which won the Critics’ Circle Award and the OffWestEnd Promising Playwright Award after opening at the Arcola Theatre in 2013.

And his most recent play, Eventide, which debuted there last month, has just embarked on a regional tour. In it Barney has tried to tell a story about cultural identity.

“It’s been a very emotional project for me,” he admits.

“But I do try to collect stories from most of the people I talk to. Roughly speaking I will write a play once every 18 months, collecting stories from my exchanges. Compared with other plays I’ve written, Eventide is relatively autobiographical. I’ve drawn on my family for this show.”

The play features a church organist. This was the profession of Barney’s father when his parents moved from London to rural Sussex. He lived there until the age of six.

“What happens when you play the organ in church is that you get a free pass to mingle with the landed gentry in the congregation,” he laughs. “Much of my early life was spent in big houses with lords, dukes, earls and viscounts. But the play encapsulates how the ways of my parents’ generation are becoming a memory.

“Our society is becoming less provincial. It’s an experience of loss for rural communities, and it is only within the last couple of years that the world has had a majority, urban population.

“When you stage a well established rural England which can quote The Bible, play cricket, drink pints and talk about poetry there will be an element of familiarity for most people, if only because it makes you think of your grandparents. The fact is that is now a place the majority of us may no longer recognise.”

So how does reception differ between performances at venues such as the Arcola Theatre in Dalston and some of the country towns you visit over the coming weeks?

“In London, Eventide has been perceived as a funny, elegiac and potentially tragic story about Englishness,” he smiles. “On the road, in places like Bury St Edmunds it has more of a documentary flavour because I am trying to stage what is happening now. To consider if elegiac is really to put a retrospective tone on to the lives of people who are still living.”

Barney spent his later childhood in Wiltshire, where his family moved in the mid 1990s. It was there, while participating at Salisbury Youth Theatre, that his interest in drama was sparked.

At this time the youth theatre was run by Caroline Leslie, now head of acting at LAMDA.

“She was the most brilliant, inspirational person,” Barney remembers, “the experience kicked me into wanting to work in the theatre for life.

“Throughout my childhood I found that being in plays liberated me from my shyness. I could be someone else and forget all my anxieties – although I probably wouldn’t have put it quite that way when I was 11.

“What youth theatres offer are rare environments for social engagement. They make it possible for young people to learn in a non-hierarchical way. You can explore creativity and ideas outside of the didacticism of schools. For me, being part of the plays opened up a world of fun.

“I loved the smell of make-up, being in the wings when the lights were on, the whole magic of theatre. The experience convinced me that the values I wanted to achieve could be achieved through the theatre better than through anything else I could have done.”

And with his new role as Martin Esslin Playwright in Residence at Keble College, Oxford, to upkeep, he’s going to be even more busy than usual.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to keep up good relationships with the team there, who I admire very much. I approached them saying that I wanted to do something looking at theatre and the university and society, and they went for it because they are encouraging, kind and enabling.”

Barney states that Up in Arms has achieved its five-year plan as a company, with glowing national press reviews and a show which has run for over a month in London. And he is keenly looking forward to its future.

“We’re now in our sixth year of operation,” he beams. “Within five years we would like to be able to have a show, somewhere in the world, every night of the year.”

Eventide comes to the North Wall, Oxford, from Wednesday 28 to Saturday, October 31.