The Lemon Table

Julian Barnes, adapted by Ian McDiarmid
Wiltshire Creative, Malvern Theatres, Sheffield Theatres and HOME in association with MGC
HOME Manchester

Ian McDiarmid as the concert-goer Credit: Marc Brenner
Ian McDiarmid as the concert-goer Credit: Marc Brenner
Ian McDiarmid as the concert-goer Credit: Marc Brenner
Ian McDiarmid as Sibelius Credit: Marc Brenner
Ian McDiarmid as Sibelius Credit: Marc Brenner
Ian McDiarmid as Sibelius Credit: Marc Brenner

In this solo show, Ian McDiarmid performs two quite different Julian Barnes pieces from his short story collection The Lemon Table with the connecting theme of ageing and death—which Barnes admitted was an obsession of his when I saw him at the Edinburgh Book Festival some years ago. The lemon is a symbol of death in Chinese culture, and the lemon table is where it is permitted to talk about death.

McDiarmid's first character in Vigilance, however, is full of life and energy, despite being in his seventies, and gleefully plotting more and more extreme action against those who transgress the rules of silence in the concert hall. He begins by talking about the time when he "poked the German" (or possibly Austrian, who therefore should have known better during Mozart) and scored a victory when the man and his companions ceased their poor behaviour and looked suitably ashamed. Not all offenders react quite so apologetically though, so he has to be sneakier and more insulting—and perhaps more violent.

Michael—with whom he shares a home but no longer a bed since the incident that "we don't talk about" that also stopped him coming to concerts with him—plays Devil's advocate over the coughers and chatterers, but he has a history of similar attacks on motorists who didn't pay enough attention to him as a cyclist. Our protagonist believes that behaviour of audiences has grown worse, but as this seems to stem from when he started to go to concerts alone, perhaps this is more to do with him than those he has attacked.

For The Silence, McDiarmid visibly ages twenty years to become the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius towards the end of his life (he died in 1957 at the age of 91) looking for a flock of cranes (based on a real anecdote from his biographer Erik W Tawaststjerna). This is a darker, more reflective piece with less humour—although his attacks on the work of other composers, particularly Stravinsky, raise a few laughs—and that introduces the connection between the lemon and death.

While suffering from increasing hand tremors that make work difficult, which he is self-medicating with alcohol, he is fending off increasing demands for his eighth symphony, which was never completed. Finally, two days before his death, he sees his flock of cranes.

Directed by Michael Grandage and Titas Holder, both stories take place on a simple setting from designer Frankie Bradshaw of a long table—which looked a bit like a snooker table from my low viewing angle—and two chairs in front of a black curtain. Ella Wahlström's sound design uses sound effects and music sparsely and subtly to enhance certain moments, and Paule Constable also keeps her lighting design simple and subtle, which is effective.

This means that the production focuses strongly on McDiarmid's remarkable performance, creating two characters that seem physically very different, while his finely tuned vocal technique allows him to hit the back wall with crystal clear words that sometimes seem intimate and almost a whisper.

With the profound and often wryly amusing words of Julian Barnes projected through the compelling performance of McDiarmid, all packed into around 70 minutes, this is definitely one to catch while it's in the area.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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