Harry Melling’s solo show, Peddling, looks a lot like a pole dance, at first; is that the former Dudley Dursley of Harry Potter fame performing a strip tease? In a gauze-enclosed, dirt-floored cage of sorts, the 25 year old British actor shakes in spasms around a rough hewn post studded with colored lightbulbs, clad only in black socks and briefs. His antics aren’t meant to arouse, however; rather, the jarring opening scene sets the mood for this gutsy debut play by a first-class stage actor and an original new voice in British theater.
Peddling, which arrives here via the annual Brits Off Broadway series at 59E59, is a refreshingly honest, engaged and unpretentious addition to the pert spring season currently underway. Melling turns in a thrillingly raw performance as an anonymous “Pedlar Boy” who prowls London’s circular roads and cosseted suburbs in a desperate and wrenching search for himself.
That’s because Melling has imagined his antihero from the inside out; on the surface, he’a a vaguely menacing, reformed juvenile delinquent (a “young offender” in the Queen’s English) selling “life’s essentials” – half rolls of toilet paper and toothbrushes – from an orange crate suspended around his neck.
But he speaks his tale in an incantatory staccato, as he makes his way, “going house to house/door to door/knock knocking/professional doorstop hopping/hoping that someone might show an interest.” Rhymes mix approximate and perfect combinations suggestive of rap’s word play. Together with a particularly keen understanding of life’s injustices, they reveal this boy to be far more complex than the average hoodlum. Gazing at the sky one night from the parking garage where he has holed up, he wonders where the stars have gone, concluding “they’ve exploded themselves/into dust and rain/that one day might hail down on us/and cause us pain…/a punishment for not taking good enough care of one another.”
Pain and punishment, it turns out, are mostly what this unloved lad feels, so when he inadvertently knocks on the door of the social worker once assigned to his case, the chance encounter puts him over the edge, though it will also open the door, possibly, to his redemption. Getting there, however, is a long journey, which Melling describes with both poetic flourishes and gritty details, across London’s topography, from north to south: a dystopian landscape the locales of which flash out from the text like signposts, but whose sociodemographic particularities cannot resonate much with American audiences.
No matter. Steven Atkinson’s direction is sensitive in all respects to Melling’s rolling, raging, at times trance-like text, making space for its metaphorical dimensions to bloom while staying right in the dirt with the Pedlar and all the forces dragging him down. Lily Arnold’s set and Azusa Ono’s lighting design keep the tension keenly pitched. The final, heart-breaking scene holds a last surprise in an evening of many. Sharp, vulnerable, smart, grimy: Peddling doesn’t give us the soft sell but we’ll take the lot.