The Lemon Tree is presented by Wiltshire Creative, Malvern Theatres, Sheffield Theatres and Home, in association with MGC. It is two short stories penned by Julian Barnes, co-directed by Michael Grandage and Titus Halder and performed by the actor Ian McDiarmid. Lighting designer Paule Constable, Associate lighting designer Ryan Day and Sound Designer by Ella Wahlstrom make up the creative team.
Barnes’ 2005 book of Short Stories are first person accounts on the reality of ageing. The two chosen stories in the Lemon Table are told through the eyes of Jeffrey in ‘Vigilance’ and the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius as he draws to the end of his life, in the second – ‘Silence’. Both these dramatizations are depicted back to back over a 65 minute period by McDiarmid with the ease of a masterclass. I was personally astounded that 65 minutes had passed, as I hung on every word and action with the same attention I began the performance with.
The set is simplistic and constant yet undefined. With a long table and two chairs adorning each end. The wooden floor is met by a full-length curtain that is slightly drawn back to expose a light, almost a destination to be drawn towards. The Chinese believe that the lemon is the symbol of death. The Lemon Table is a place to talk about death with friends, thus this explains the correlation between the two short stories.
Vigilance tells the fully rounded story of Jeffrey, a self-righteous and avid concert goer and his despair of people who rattle sweet papers, flick through programmes, flirt and speak and even more annoyingly cough during an orchestral performance. As Jeffrey’s reactions of finger poking retaliation, even contempt, are related to the engaged audience, it is laced with cynicism and humour in abundance and the audience laugh along with the actor, however, not one dare open a sweet or cough! During this rant we subtly learn of Jeffrey’s previous misdemeanours with partner and ex-lover Andrew and how ‘we don’t talk about that’. We learn of Andrew’s life in increasing exasperation through the eyes of Jeffrey.
The second monologue Silence, sees Sibelius, nearing the end of his life contemplate this, his work and its cost. Like Jeffrey, our narrator is frustrated by the constant ‘noise’ of inferior composers and the outside world. The audience share the fears of the composer through his dealings with criticism and the ‘ignorance of the youth’. Again, details of his life are revealed, the frustrations of his wife of 65 years and the mother of his 5 daughters. He carries around the letter she wrote to him explaining she would never again watch him in concert inebriated, in his breast pocket, like the wound it created. His alcohol addiction ‘now my most faithful companion’.
McDiarmid’s performance is a tour de force in both the delivery and the physicalisation of the two characters. Yet it is the moments of silence and movement that instil the sadness and regret within the production, from the conducting, the movement of the cranes and the lure of the alcohol bottle, the actor memorises with his command. The empathy of the direction by Grandage and Halder add to this,as does the sound and vision of the creative team, resulting in an evening that brought the audience to rapturous applause and left us all contemplating our own aging and its ramifications.
The Lemon Table is showing at the Sheffield Crucible Theatre until Saturday 30th October and is a must see of how to entrance an audience and stop time with a virtuoso performance. https://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/events/the-lemon-table
Reviewer: Tracey Bell
Reviewed: 26th October 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★