★★★★★ A confronting but deeply expressive study of life on the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder.

The Lawler, Southbank Theatre, Melbourne
April 23, 2016

It’s a pesky side effect of child stardom that the Hollywood fledgling in question is often permanently tarred by the brush of whichever movie first propelled them to fame. And so it was in the publicity for Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Harry Melling’s Peddling, which proudly trumpets the actor-turned-playwright’s connection to the juggernaut Harry Potter franchise, in which he played the title role’s spoilt and spiteful cousin, Dudley Dursley. Not that this credit isn’t impressive, but it does, perhaps, belie the extraordinary accomplishment of Melling as a writer. This thoroughly assured debut play is a finely crafted yet bravely unbuttoned piece that challenges perceptions of those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. 

Through a potent, slam-poetry infused stream of consciousness, we are brought into the bleak yet determined world of a nameless 19-year-old Boy. Failed by the system, haunted by a childhood mangled by apathetic social workers and the brutal streets of London, this vulnerable, damaged teen is controlled by a Bill Sikes-esque “boss man” who commands a collection of discarded youths. These boys go door to door, selling household goods under the ruse of a phoney Young Offenders Programme, and it’s through the lens of this experience that we discover the turbulent swell of psychological complexity simmering just below the surface of this neglected pariah.

Darcy Brown

There’s a linear narrative that drives this monologue – a chance encounter with a former caseworker sends the Boy on a mission to exorcise the demons of his shattered upbringing – but it’s Melling’s use of language that is the most compelling attribute of this text. The vigour and rhythm of his verse inject an itinerant energy into the dialogue that propels it at an unstoppable pace. There is a chaotic intelligence that underpins the action, an untamed train of thought that constantly feels on the edge of violence or hysteria. But there are also endearing traits to this character, such as a playful wit and a hard-won integrity. When a senile pensioner offers to buy his entire stock of shoddy merchandise, he turns this windfall down, noting “I ain’t a thief.”  

This Boy is an every-man analogue for the people who are all too often disregarded as an inconvenience to our affluent milieu, but the emotional intricacy of this piece illuminates something acutely affecting about those who are forsaken by society. Maintaining the dramatic equilibrium between the gritty and the moving is key to the success of this performance, and Darcy Brown delivered a sharp and insightful account. 

Bec Matthews and Darcy Brown

Deeply physical and emotionally agile, Brown carved out a gripping performance as he scuttled and leapt across every square centimetre of Marg Horwell’s simple, curving set. This text requires a performance that reaches the furthest extremities of the emotional spectrum and Brown met this challenge with powerfully affecting results. When the Boy makes an abortive attempt to kill himself with a firework, the cocktail of fear, desperation and crushing sadness was breathtakingly tangible. 

In addition to the strengths of this text, director Susie Dee has brought some truly inspired touches to this production. We meet the Boy half naked, vulnerable and sick, immediately piquing both our sympathy and revulsion. Throughout, the tortured physicality of the Boy constantly reminds us of his battered humanity, even when his mental state lurches from quiet courage to self-destruction. In one of the most finely honed synergies between spoken word and music I have ever witnessed on stage, percussionist Bec Matthews’ drum kit accompaniment brilliantly enhances the articulation of this text, amplifying the restless pace and emotional nuance of the Boy’s dialogue. 

This is a terrific piece of theatre, but beyond this production’s artistic merits, Peddling also makes an incredibly important statement about our society’s capacity for blythe isolation. This is, unquestionably, a confronting show, but it is also profoundly expressive. At times, the rawness of this study is almost uncomfortable to watch, and this is surely because we recognise this character: we see him everyday on our city streets.

Melbourne Theatre Company present Peddling, until May 6.