Official figures released in early 2018 showed that almost 5,000 people sleep rough across England every year, and that the number has increased with 169 percent in less than a decade. This acute issue is rarely addressed within the cultural world, which makes Harry Melling’s play Peddling so arresting. The hour-long one-man show, which will be put up at the Maddermarket Theatre by Coast to Coast Theatre Company in the beginning of February, follows the homeless character Boy all across London as he goes door to door trying to sell cleaning utensils and other essentials. Peddling is Melling’s debut as a playwright, although he’s had a prosperous stage-career after wrapping up his role as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter series (he was a memorable Edgar to Glenda Jackson’s brilliant King Lear at the Old Vic a couple of years ago.)
Coast to Coast Theatre Company, founded in 2017 by now final year UEA English Literature and Drama students Rohan Gotobed and Molly Farley, was looking for a play to produce in their final term and contacted fellow third-year Charlie Douglas. Charlie had both seen the original production and starred in the play himself, and will therefore comes full circle when directing this production together with Zoe Callow at the Maddermarket. Seb Fear, who impressed greatly in a student production of Simon Stephen’s Punk Rock last spring, will take on the role of Boy. ‘When he came to us with the idea of doing Peddling with Seb, we thought it was a match made in heaven’ Rohan told me, as I met him, Zoe, Charlie and Seb above the drama studio on campus. Coast to Coast’s mission is to help emerging writers and talent, and Rohan claimed they ‘fell in love with the character and Charlie’s idea of how we could create this really visceral experience, so we immediately wanted to produce it and stage it at the Maddermarket.’
Charlie, Zoe and Seb were all drawn to the play due to its unique mixture of lyricism and harsh realism. ‘For me it’s just a very important play’, Charlie told me. ‘It’s tragic, it’s humorous in places, it’s raw, it’s honest, it’s aggressive, it’s intense, it’s suspenseful, all while giving us a different perspective on young homeless people.’ Seb had never heard of the play when Charlie approached him with the script, but explained how he ‘immediately wanted to do it.’ ‘I think it’s just a beautifully written play. From an acting point of view I can’t wait to perform it. It’s a point of view and a voice that I had never seen in a play before. Throughout the whole play there’s a flow and rhythm to it that you have to get right.’ Peddling is written almost like a 60-minute spoken word poem; when Boy is going from door to door with his plastic crate, he describes his work thus:
going house to house,
door to door –
knock knocking –
professional doorstep hopping,
hoping that someone might show an interest.
Seb went on to elaborate on how the play, despite being a one-man show, ‘opens up this vast world.’ Boy impersonates the characters he meets, giving the audience a vivid insight into the personalities he encounters. ‘You get such an in-depth, full experience of everyone in the play,’ he said, and assistant director Zoe explained how they did a lot of thorough work on the character’s background in order to portray this: ‘I think that really helped to ground this person in a reality so that the stakes are very high, everything we have worked on and now know about the Boy at the start of the play really contextualises the journey he goes on, and by the end you are really invested in this character.’
All seemed to agree that the form of Boy’s voice contributes to the play’s truthfulness. ‘In moments it’s so angry and bitter and so desperately sad almost, that I think that kind of voice highlights the ugly truths of the world’, Charlie said, and quoted from an article from several years back about Boris Johnson’s scheme for young people on benefits. In 2012, the then-mayor of London announced a new scheme that would have young people between the ages of 18-24 do unpaid work for thirteen weeks in order to be able to claim their benefits. At the time, the employment minister Chris Grayling said that this was done to combat a ‘something-for-nothing culture’ which ‘does no one any favours’, while Pat Carmody from the group Right to Work called the scheme “another punishment directed at those at the bottom of society.’
Charlie talked of how the humiliation and injustice of policies like this, combined with the current homeless population of Norwich (it’s been estimated that around 30 people sleep rough in Norwich every year – nine homeless people were found dead in 2017 alone) was what motivated them to put on this production. ‘I also think that the story is told from someone who we don’t normally hear from’ Zoe said, ‘and one really important use of theatre is to give people a voice when we don’t normally hear from them, and I think the play does that really well.’
Peddling is on at the Maddermarket Theatre on 6 and 8 February at 1.30pm, and 7 and 9 February at 7.30pm.