Review: peddling, Arcola

Published in The Independent on March 9, 2015

Into a black gauze cube, Harry Melling drops from the ceiling to a burst of loud dance music. It may only be a couple of metres squared, but Melling will rattle around in this cage effectively, taking us on a journey through London: from so-posh-they’re-empty mansioned streets to multi-storey car parks where the down-and-out can kip. It’s a journey of self-discovery too for the “Boy”, as this unnamed disaffected youth struggles to make sense of his place within the world, and his own troubled upbringing.

Melling penned the piece; his first play, it opened at the HighTide new writing festival before proving a hit in New York. The Boy is engaged in a scam for a “bossman”, going door-to-door peddling his wares (household cleaning products), supposedly as part of “Boris’ young offenders scheme.”

Melling plays the Boy with a strong Sarf Lahndahn yoof accent, but peddling uses this to rough up its poetry: the whole monologue has a feverish intensity. Its rapid rhyming structure is reminiscent of Mark O’Rowe’s Howie the Rookie and Terminus, while the rhythms and inflections are closer to spoken word poets like Kate Tempest or Polar Bear. “So I’m doing what I do best…/I’m creating a fucking mess!” is his self-destructive, self-fulfilling mantra.

Designed with spare efficiency by Lily Arnold, the set includes a central pole with lights that come on when Melling interacts with other characters. He is the voice of London’s unfortunate, while these bulbs flick on and off as privileged residents shut their doors on him. But one door too many slams in his face when his old social worker doesn’t even recognise him.

The Boy’s desire to make himself heard, to put a light in the darkness, leads to him buying a firework – but while they may blaze in glory they can also be destructive, damaging. Melling walks that line with uneasy menace as we wonder where and when he’s going to blast off. This is typical of peddling – for all the play is grounded in a grimy, desperate urban London, it aims far higher with its symbolic imagery.

In a bomber jacket and undercut, Melling’s street-savvy yet tenderly bruised portrayal is a long way from Dudley Dursley – he’s hardly recognisable as the chubby little monster of the Harry Potter films. It’s a twitchy, jumped-up physical performance, with laser-focused delivery and commitment – even if he doesn’t inspire quite the same level of high emotion and engagement in the audience. While he has some genuinely arresting lines – “I’m still stuck here playing this tug of war with my umbilical cord” – peddling isn’t always as profound as it wants to be.

To 28 Mar;

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