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.

For me, 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 I’m 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.

Leave a Reply