Circles, cycles, and connections. The themes of rewind and repetition are threaded through Peddling, the writing début of Harry Melling, best known for his run as the unpleasant Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films.
But you’ll find no hint of Dudley here; Melling has shed Dudley’s cartoonishly menacing bulk—literally and figuratively—and instead inhabits a complex, energetic homeless boy who makes his living by selling ‘everyday essentials’ door to door. At the start of the play, the boy awakens naked and alone in a field, his few belongings scattered around him. He retraces his steps, cycling back through the previous day (or days, or weeks), half-explaining, half-wondering how he ended up there.
The 50-seat black box theater at 59E59 was the perfect choice of venue; intimate and often uncomfortably close. On the stage—designed by Lily Arnold—a telephone pole twined with blinking lights is surrounded by a patch of grass, then a ring of dirt that has seemingly been paced over for hours. Circles again. A scrim separates the audience from the scene and the boy—although for our protection or his, we can’t be sure.
At its heart, Peddling is a commentary on the very real issues of class and overloaded social workers and mental illness. The boy is an orphan, struggling with the identity—or lack thereof—that comes with living a rootless, disconnected life on one’s own. He’s a self-destructive street-corner philosopher with a wicked temper and a foul mouth; his own memories seem like dreams to him, but he remembers every word to an old church song. He’s afraid of changing or growing, but loath to stay the same; this loop of fear circles his throat like a noose. At play’s end, you see it tighten.
Melling is at once athletic, endearing, and unhinged in the role, his own words sputtering out of him in an almost Shakespearean rhythm, the most acrobatic spoken-word performance you’ve ever seen.
The words themselves are nearly a decade in the making. The first draft of the script was penned when Melling was only sixteen—eight years after the incident that inspired it—then revised two years ago. After the show, Melling admitted he was no star pupil in English, which might be for the best: there’s no practice or pretension here. Simply story, told with raw feeling.
The polish comes through in the technical successes of lighting designer Asuza Ono and sound designer George Dennis. The lights on the telephone pole stand in as other characters, memories from the boy’s previous days. They blink and fade in perfect time, weaving through the music supplied by the boy’s trusty portable radio, which acts as atmosphere as well as the collective voice box of the light-bulb people.
Before arriving in New York, Peddling premièred in Suffolk at HighTide Festival, an event co-founded by the show’s director, Steven Atkinson. Melling has expressed keen interest in bringing Peddling to London, where it’s set, and as close to Hampstead Heath—the field the boy wakes up in—as possible. Perhaps on the Heath itself. Life imitating art.
Full circle once more.
Peddling runs through May 18th. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased on the theatre’s website.