Ian McDiarmid had the Cambridge Arts Theatre audience in the palm of his hand for The Lemon Table.

One half of this show is funny, the other is tragic. Both are magnificent.

The actor has adapted into a one-man show two short stories by Julian Barnes. These tales of eccentricity describe people at the end of their lives looking back at the quirks of fortune which made them. Mostly, they meet their trouble half-way.

In the first story, Vigilance, the character is an ardent concert goer, a worshiper of classical music to the exclusion of all reason. He develops increasingly extravagant strategies to stop other members of the audience rustling their programmes, whispering to companions and above all coughing. He has become more sensitive to these interruptions than he is to the music.

He begins by poking the man sitting in front of him in the back with three sharp fingers. He upgrades this to tracking people down in the interval to hand out sarcastic cough sweets. Then realises that these people don’t get the message. They think he is merely being kind.

Kind! He wants to have them banned from the concert halls, if not hanged by the neck until they are dead. Finally, he is driven to commit a satisfying act of violence.

But wait, sadness is the underside of anger. We learn that at home our frustrated music fan has an estranged lover who has no sympathy for his exasperation. The lover has long ago stopped accompanying him to concerts – or to bed.

The lover says dismissively, why go to hear live music if it enrages him so. Why not stay at home and listen to CDs.

The lover is angry at life too – for a different reason. He cycles across London every day to his job in the furniture section at the V&A. He too is venomous - at motorists and other road users. He yells out the C-word. He bends back wing mirrors and thumps on the roofs of cars.

McDiarmid’s velvet voice peoples the stage when he tells a story. We see the characters he describes – and when they swear it is so elegantly voiced that the audience cannot help but laugh. There is a great deal of humour in the detail of this brilliantly well-observed, poignant tale.

The second story, called Silence, opens with a piece of Sibelius’s music. Sibelius spent the last 30 years of his life failing to compose an eighth symphony – getting increasingly angry at being asked about it. His closest companion now is whiskey.

McDiarmid’s characterisation doesn’t just change for the second story. This is metamorphosis. His first character is jauntily and self-righteously annoyed, a little bit twitchy, but he still has hope - his second is entirely disillusioned.

The collection is called The Lemon Table because we are told that in Chinese culture, the lemon is the symbol of death and Sibelius tells us the lemon table is a table at a restaurant where it is customary – expected even - to talk about death.

When the end comes it is shocking – a climax to one of the most powerful performances you will see today.