DESIGNER Frankie Bradshaw’s set is, at first glance, austere.
It is there waiting for all to see when entering the auditorium; comprising a huge vertical frame looming about a third of the way upstage with a full stage width run of towering grey curtains behind it.
This effectively offers up a tight playing area.
A huge, heavy almost black table is set centrally and runs nearly the whole length of the horizontal part of the frame. At each end of the table, equally heavy carver chairs rest up-turned.
There is some working light on the stage and the house lights remain on as a small figure in a very ordinary lounge suit enters from the side stalls door like an apologetic latecomer. He makes his way, almost wearily, up onto the stage.
Destination reached, he stops and turns towards us – houselights dim and stage lanterns shine down from the top of the curtains illuminating the folds.
An overture-like blast of music breaks the silence and the figure grows before us. We are in presence of a very special actor – the quite wondrous talent that is Ian McDiarmid.
The show, co-directed by Michael Grandage and Titas Halder, comprises two Julian Barnes stories linked by a common theme of music and the said huge table.
The creative team of Bradshaw plus lighting and sound design from Paula Constable and Ella Wahlstrom combine to give McDiarmid a very special stage on which to entertain us majestically.
The Lemon Table of the title is a table where death may be discussed.
A Chinese practice apparently, as is being buried with a lemon in your hand.
All this is very fitting as the show evolves.
The first act is called ‘Vigilance’ and concerns a concert-going vigilante whose mission it is to make audiences sit in silence with no rustling of wrappers and heaven forbid a cough.
This works so well that I am sure I was not alone in desperately trying to keep the saliva in the throat flowing so that I wasn’t the one that all heads turn to should a stifled bark be whimpered.
When McDiarmid speaks as the vigilante we listen and obey – but as the piece moves more into comedic we relax as he cleverly draws a line between the character and us – becoming for a time almost a stand up artist.
Then a change once more – as he expands the story to tell us of the end of the physical relationship with his long term partner, Andrew.
“Where did the time go?” he asks and “Where indeed” we think in response.
‘Vigilance’ is as sad as it is hilarious and as poignant as it is distanced.
The curtain is pulled back slightly and McDiarmid disappears into a misty void behind for a quick change into a heavy, dark, all embracing overcoat for Act Two entitled ‘Silence’.
Here we are transported to Finland and the tormented musings of the composer Jean Sibelius. He is chalk and cheese to the vigilante – yet just as riveting.
He takes us into the darkest recesses of his torment with his only chum being a whisky bottle. He personifies the unwelcome marriage between genius and depression.
The little man from the stalls took us on two riveting journeys ending like a giant.
Everything about his performance was perfection – his pitch, volume and tone of voice, his gesture, movement and pure breath-taking physicality as he used the table in a myriad of ways.
It was a privilege to be in Malvern Theatres last night I cannot recall 70 minutes in an audience passing so quickly – a joyous piece of writing from a master of his craft delivered by another.
Ian McDiarmid in Julian Barnes ‘The Lemon Table’ is something not to be missed – I cannot recommend it highly enough.
It runs until Saturday, November 27. Click here for times, tickets and more information.
Review by Euan Rose
Euan Rose Reviews