Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Theatre review: peddling

Following successful runs at the HighTide Festival and off-Broadway last year, Harry Melling brings his playwrighting debut to London for a run at the Arcola's basement space. In the monologue peddling, Melling plays a nameless, homeless teenager caught up in a gang of pedlars: A sinister Fagin-like boss puts a bunch of boys onto a bus into London every evening, pretending to be part of a scheme for young offenders, and knocking on doors to try and sell cleaning cloths and toothbrushes, "life's essentials." The boss demands plenty of sales so he can get his cut, but the locals have cottoned on that it's a scam, and our narrator has a pretty fruitless night. His worries about disappointing the boss are forgotten though, when a familiar face appears behind one of the doors - but she doesn't recognise him.

Melling's play is written in verse, often - particularly at the beginning and end - in rhyme. As is often the case this takes a little while to get used to the rhythms, but it's a fitting form for a story that balances the grittily realistic with occasional flights of fancy.

As with all actors who write themselves a monologue, peddling is well-designed to display Melling's acting skills, but the complexity of its language and its overall success suggest that this is a story he was genuinely interested in telling, not just a showcase. It's undoubtedly an impressive performance though, both physically - the play opens to reveal Melling has been hanging from the ceiling the whole time the audience has been settling down - and vocally, with some understated work on portraying all the other characters.

But the writer-performer can't take all the credit, as he's been given a canny production by Steven Atkinson, that builds on the script's lyricism. George Dennis' sound design really stands out in helping create some genuinely atmospheric moments, and Lily Arnold's design has a few creative touches in showing the boy's fleeting interactions with others. The in-the-round staging sees the whole stage area behind transparent black netting, boxing Melling off and isolating him from the audience (I don't think he'd have even been able to see out of it.) It's interesting how when - SPOILER ALERT! - the curtains suddenly fall and the lights go up, it's the audience who feel exposed, even though it's the actor sitting in the dirt in his underwear.

peddling by Harry Melling is booking until the 28th of March at Arcola Studio 2.

Running time: 55 minutes straight through.

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