Living Rough in London

British actor Harry Melling, best known as Dudley Dursley in five Harry Potter films, has taken a leaf from his famous co-star, Daniel Radcliffe—or perhaps he just found himself on a parallel path. Both actors are currently doing stage work in New York, yet Melling has done Radcliffe, who is starring on Broadway in The Cripple of Inishmaan, one better. Melling’s solo performance in Peddling for the Brits Off-Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters also marks his playwriting debut.

Certainly, the likable young author has a gift for language with an inclination to the poetical—the script looks like pages of modern verse, with phrases broken into lines of rough poetry and no capitalization, in the style of e.e. cummings. Unfortunately, the language sometimes obscures the clarity of the thought, or the thought itself.

never, eat, shredded what,
(and I’m) never, eating, shredded wheat.

trying to
get my bearings on the sweet—
but before I can…
already shouting at from the van…
“you better do me proud today boy, otherwise…”
and the gunshot go off…

One might detect a rap-like repetition of rhymes such as can/man/van, but the determined poetic impulse also includes near-rhymes that are common to rap—or, if your inclination is more highbrow, William Butler Yeats. Still, Melling evokes the seamy side of London, the loneliness of an orphan, and the self-destructiveness of many British youth.

Playing a 19-year-old character known only as Boy, the actor is first seen nearly naked inside a square scrim surrounded on all sides by seats. The floor is dirt with a spot of grass, and there’s a telephone pole at the center with lights on it. As the title suggests, the Boy knocks on doors, working as a salesman as part of a social work program and carrying a box of household items. To those who answer the doors he announces, “I’m from Boris Johnson’s young offender’s scheme, and I was wondering whether or not you’d like to buy something.” (Although director Steven Atkinson has helpfully added the surname Johnson to the script’s plain Boris, most Americans still won't connect the name to the mayor of London. But Atkinson has staged the play superbly.)

Melling plays not only himself but gives voice to other characters using a closely held microphone. When he does, Azusa Ono’s colored lights indicate another speaker: a green light may intensify for one person, or a red for another. Some are in the pole, some above the playing area. (At one point the Boy climbs up the pole, as Atkinson uses every bit of the constricted space.) The lighting is expertly coordinated with George Dennis’s outstanding sound design—city traffic, door shutting, doorbell.

One day, by accident, the Boy knocks on a door and recognizes the woman who answers as his own social worker, although she doesn’t recognize him. He tries to engage her young daughter through the home’s speaker system, and at one point he lashes out at the impersonality of the social system, but eventually he bonds with the child, who helps him by locating a crucial piece of evidence about his heritage. Although Atkinson never lets the energy flag, the language periodically gets in the way of an easy comprehension of the plot and becomes a source of frustration.

On the program cover the actor’s photograph gives him a slightly thuggish air of a rugby player, but Melling displays warmth and sensitivity as the hero, abandoned by his mother and wanting a family connection, although the character has his faults. He shows a youthful cockiness, a temper, a drinking habit, and a flash of homophobia along with his yearning. For a writer who is only 25 not to have his gifts completely under control yet is not surprising. The good news is that Melling hasn’t had his play staged because he used to hang out with a boy wizard. He has his own talents to capitalize on.

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