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Theater Review (NYC): ‘peddling’ by Harry Melling

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Harry Melling stars in Peddling, part of Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Bill Knight.

Harry Melling stars in Peddling, part of Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Bill Knight.

peddling is a compact work of spellbinding creativity, a one-man dramatic poem written and performed by a wily and effervescent Harry Melling. Best known as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter movies), Melling has matured into an actor of unusual gravity for such a young artist, with an ability to submerge fully into a multifaceted bigger-than-life character consumed by ill-understood passions.

Inspired by a childhood encounter with an incomprehensibly angry door-to-door pedlar, Melling’s play recounts a few days in the life of a 19-year-old young man (known in the script only as Boy) who works for a strict “boss man” knocking on doors with a basket of “everyday essentials” – toilet paper, toothpaste and such. But these few days are a whirlwind of aggressive emotional acting-out for the prickly young man.

An innovative cage-like set designed by Lily Arnold represents a field of dirt and grass enclosed by screens and punctuated by a central telegraph pole decked with climbing rungs and strung with small lights. The lighting and sound design (by Asuza Ono and George Dennis respectively) are almost additional characters, buzzing and flickering and dancing our antihero from street to street and day to day and mood to mood as fast as the mind can follow.

At one house, seemingly randomly chosen and inhabited by a playful little girl and her mother (voiced by Melling through a microphone he carries with him like a security blanket), he acquires some information that seems to direct him to the home of his lost birth parents. If there’s an explanation for this I didn’t catch it, but I didn’t care and thinking back I still don’t, for peddling is a work of poetic license in the best sense.

The obvious but effective symbolism of the set is just one manifestation of the whole conception’s poetry. With spectators on all four sides and enclosed within his four gauzy walls, the peddler has no path to the wider world, no access to any kind of freedom, trapped as he is in his own sore mind in a pauper’s job with no promise for the future. These dire straits compel him to tell his own story as if he were, well, a character in a work of experimental fiction. Suspension of disbelief is a given. His lines and movements roll like waves, often rhyming like rap lyrics loosed from their rhythmic bounds.

Pure id, a raw nerve, Boy narrates his days in a spill and builds towards a transcendent moment:

i put…
my big toe
in the water,
creating a ripple,
which ripples…
and ripples…
sending shivers up my spine.

Climbs the telegraph pole

time to put my armbands on
and jump in…
(even though already
said never learnt to swim)
but my head’s…
above water –
so i reckon i’m fine.

Boy starts hitting himself.

asking all the ill
and devilish things
to leave me behind.

The naked words may read as self-consciously conceptual, even childish, but the hourlong performance directed by Steven Atkinson is a work of mature and mesmerizing creativity.

peddling is at 59E59 Theaters through May 18.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.