The Lemon Table review – Julian Barnes’ stories of mortality and musicality

Halfway through Vigilance, the first act of Ian McDiarmid’s solo show, my hat fell from my lap to the floor. Did I stoop to retrieve it? No chance. Onstage, McDiarmid was delivering – as if he meant it – a barbed monologue about uncouth audience behaviour in theatres. It felt like the wrong moment to be scrabbling under someone else’s seat for a flat cap.

McDiarmid has adapted Vigilance from Julian Barnes’ story about a concertgoer driven mad by coughing, chatting and mobile phone use in the auditorium. He pairs it with a second Barnes piece, The Silence, which finds composer Jean Sibelius contemplating death, and the bottom of a whisky bottle. The diptych is given an austere production by directors Michael Grandage and Titas Halder: spare set (just the titular table, two chairs and an upstage curtain), stark light and shadow, cacophonous silences.

The last are significant: both our narrators are pursuing the ultimate quiet. For the antihero of Vigilance, it’s a precondition for experiencing the music he loves. For Sibelius, it’s the state to which all music finally tends. But to both, silence also represents a flight from personal responsibility: “We do not speak of this.” Mortality looms for these old men, but they seem some way short of attaining wisdom, or peace.

为我, these connections aren’t quite strong enough to make a whole of the two parts. This 65-minute show was first conceived for the Edinburgh fringe, in which context these shards of life might have felt more substantial. They feel more prelude than symphony here – but the orchestration is highly adept. There’s real pleasure to be had in Barnes’ dramatic ironies, particularly in Vigilance. His fellow concertgoers “gave me a look,” protests its self-delighted protagonist, “as if 我是 the weirdo!” As if.

Then there’s McDiarmid’s performance: beady, studied, never casual, his voice (now an airy high, now a sepulchral low) toying with the language like a cat with a ball of wool. Unlovely though both characters are, McDiarmid prepares us to follow them anywhere – even if, these being two short stories rather than a play, there isn’t really the option to do so.