Review: Springtime for Henry (and Barbara), Wilton’s Music Hall

“Nobody but nobody thought that putting the life of Henry Moore into a musical was a good idea” 

It’s a real shame that Springtime for Henry (and Barbara) only ran for three performances over two nights as I’d’ve recommended it to all and sundry, not least for capturing the spirit of exactly what Wilton’s Music Hall should be used for. A highly idiosyncratic piece, described as “a fictitious lost musical reconstructed in fragments”, it’s the continuation of a multi-phase project by artist Mel Brimfield and musician Gwyneth Herbert, interrogating the relationship between sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

This it does imaginatively in a number of ways: a mockumentary format (calling to mind nothing so much as the genius behind-the-scenes episode of Acorn Antiques) detailing decades of attempts to put this show on the stage, complete with abortive scores from Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber and a high cast turnover; repurposed archive footage; a chat show section interviewing the ‘director’; and an impressively wide-ranging set of musical numbers, referencing a equally wide set of influences. The cumulative effect was very much of a variety show and that just felt perfect in the atmospheric surroundings of this oldest surviving music hall in the world.

And it was a most beguiling confection. The friendly rivalry between Hepworth and Moore provides a constant stream of inspiration – most notably in amusing duet ‘Adel Rock’ which sees them each respond to the Yorkshire landscape in very different ways (imagine a duet between Jake Thackray and Kate Bush if you will) Andrew C Wadsworth and Herbert combining to beautiful effect. I also really enjoyed the musically inventive opening number, which featured the Starling Arts Choir harmonising beautifully as sopranos, altos and tenors extolled the virtues of working with marble, plaster and bronze. 

David Bedella was great value for money as the glad-handing schmoozing director, losing control of his animatronic props; Hugh Ross was wonderfully dry as the presenter keen on minimising the role of Barbara in the show; and as the woman seemingly destined to be in Moore’s shadow forever, Frances Ruffelle (a previous collaborator with Herbert on The A-Z of Mrs P) got a show-stopper of a number (and a gorgeous dark green dressing gown!) which combined humour with real insight into gender parity in a male-dominated world, Herbert’s lyrical intent brilliantly executed here. 

So even for an ignoramus about sculpture like me, Springtime for Henry (and Barbara) was an unalloyed pleasure (even if some of the more niche jokes passed me by), where else would one get a rigorous historiographical interrogation of the modernist legacy on a Wednesday night?! And along with Brimfield here, Gwyneth Herbert continues to be a much welcomed breath of bracingly fresh air in the world of musical theatre, the soaring power of her vocal (and delicious harmonies) matched by the elegant tone of her French horn. Here’s hoping Springtime… might actually return (in the spring-time). 

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