Have you ever been to a concert or to the theatre and had the overwhelming urge to tap the person in front of you on the shoulder to ask them if they could possibly stop talking, or put their phone away, or just cough more quietly? I know I certainly have! And that is where this play opens, with a concert goer doing just that.
What follows is an exploration of the behaviour of a man who just wants to be able to enjoy the creativity and brilliance of an orchestra, its soloists and its conductor in peace. He clearly appreciates the performing arts and values being at live events, which is something that I’m quite sure we can all relate to in the new post-pandemic world; but he is also frustrated by the discourteous behaviour of his fellow audience members. However, as the scene unfolds, we realise that it’s not just the noisy public that is the cause of his frustration.
Excepting the many moments of loud laughter, Ian McDiarmid had the audience sitting in respectful silence from the moment he walked onto the stage as he drew us into his narrative almost daring us to interrupt him with a cough or a rustle of a sweet wrapper.
McDiarmid doesn’t just tackle this one character though. The Lemon Table comprises adaptations of two short stories from Julian Barnes’ 2004 book of the same name: the first, Vigilance, and the second The Silence, performed without a break over 70 minutes.
The mood changes as we are introduced to the protagonist of the second act, the classical composer Sibelius, who is feeling melancholic and reflective as he struggles to write his eighth and final symphony. Battling with the implications of his fame, his relationship to alcohol and his relationships with family, friends and rivals, he shares his thoughts of life and death, and musical genius and the absence of it; and we finally discover the significance of the lemon.
Directed by Michael Grandage and Titas Halder, with a design team of Frankie Bradshaw, Paule Constable, Ella Wahlström and Ryan Day, these two short stories are adapted into engaging monologues, which are independent but linked by textual motifs, extracts of music and the simple but dramatic set.
However, it is the simplicity of the set that allows McDiarmid to shine. From start to finish, his performance was an absolute masterclass. The characterisation, movement and dramatization really were outstanding, and took us on an emotional journey from humour, to empathy, and from anger to desperate vulnerability. My only complaint is that the production is so rich that I wish I had time to go again to fully appreciate these stories and this incredible performance.
The Lemon Table is playing at HOME, Manchester, until Saturday 20th November, and some performances are socially distanced, audio described and/or captioned. Information and tickets can be found at: https://homemcr.org/production/the-lemon-table/
Reviewer: Jo Tillotson
Reviewed: 16th November 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★