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The Lemon Table

Julian Barnes

Ian McDiarmid, Michael Grandage Company

Malvern Theatres, Sheffield Theatres, Wiltshire Creative and HOME co-production

HOME Manchester

November 16-20, 2021, 1hr 10min

Ian McDiarmid in The Lemon Table c Marc Brenner
Ian McDiarmid in The Lemon Table. All pics: Marc Brenner

I had a good friend whose night at the opera almost turned into a fight at the opera when he tried to “Sh!” a fellow audience-member for talking over the music.

Such – albeit in a less up-front, Northern style – is the situation described in the first part of Julian Barnes’ The Lemon Table, which is an Ian McDiarmid virtuoso solo performance in its own right.

The first part, Vigilance, introduces us to an elderly classical concert-goer who tries to improve the standard of audience behaviour at the Royal Festival Hall through a repertoire of glares, pokes, interval accosts with offers of cough sweets, and sometimes more extreme measures. This is pretty near the bone for this critic, who has often wished to do the same, or tried to… even more so when you find that his “civilised friend and ex-lover”, Andrew, is a cyclist who bangs on car roofs to express his disapproval of their drivers’ safety standards – which our friend thoroughly approves of. Been there, done that too.

As the script amply reminds us, this kind of tut-tutting is encouraged by officious programmes that explain to all the decibel level of an unmuffled cough in an auditorium, and offer advice on how to switch off a mobile phone. It’s but a short step to frowning at those who clap after symphonic first movements or sing along to Bizet’s Toreador’s Song. Been there, too?

This is all great fun, even though rather more attuned to Southern Jessies than us oop North: we stand and offer fists. But the piece is really just an amusing hors d’oeuvre to the second part, The Silence, (which finally also explains the show’s title).

The link is sonically made with a blast of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony’s final movement (referenced in part one) over the PA system, because this is about the famous “Silence of Jarvenpaa” – the fact that the ageing Sibelius hardly wrote anything from 1927 to his death in 1957, despite talking about a final symphony to follow his immensely successful first seven.

Getting inside a great composer’s head is a tempting project for a writer: Barnes is following in the footsteps of those who have tried to psychoanalyse Beethoven, Richard Strauss and Britten, to name a few. The snag is that they’re people who express their souls through notes, not words.

And in Sibelius’s case, there was the drink. That’s clearly part of the scenario here, though the script doesn’t reference his reported comment, from quite early in life, that “When I’ve had a drink, I conduct like a god” (or words to that effect). It takes the loftier road of making him say “The logic of music leads eventually to silence”, with the booze as a second issue.

McDiarmid, though, is mesmerising; brilliantly resourceful in setting up the character he’s been given, and utterly compelling to watch.

The Lemon Table, incidentally, is to do with his briefly-mentioned group of drinking partners, who have observed that the lemon is the Chinese symbol of death. When the piece stops trying to be clever about known Sibelius quotes (including, of course, “There is no city in the world that has erected a statue to a critic” – almost contradicted by Manchester, where we have a bust of Neville Cardus in the Town Hall), it nearly gets profound about old age and dying.

But Richard Strauss did that much better.

Info and tickets here


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