Saturday, 5 October 2019

Review: Pizza Shop Heroes (Phosphoros Theatre)

Friday 4th October 2019
HOME, Manchester (Orbit Festival)

This year’s Orbit Festival at HOME, Manchester runs from Wednesday 18th September to Saturday 5th October. The festival programme for 2019 seeks to ‘conquer the divide’, by bringing together artists and theatre-makers who explore prevailing societal divides and the ways these might be overcome. On Friday 4th October, I attended the press night of Pizza Shop Heroes by Phosphoros Theatre, which was on the Orbit festival programme this year. I’ll be playing the radio version of my review on Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, but here’s the blog version…


Pizza Shop Heroes is an innovative piece of applied theatre based on the lived experiences of the performers, which was developed through a research process and development workshops. The experiences narrated by workshop participants (the performers of the show) were worked into a theatre script by Dawn Harrison (who also directs) with artistic direction from Kate Duffy.

The performers are Tewodros Aregawe, Goitom Fesshaye, Emirjon Hoxhaj and Syed Haleem Najibi, all of whom came to the UK between 2013-15 as Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children. Phosphoros Theatre are committed to making work that offers an alternative perspective on the refugee experience, using the lived experiences of the company to inform their performances.

Pizza Shop Heroes begins in – unsurprisingly – a pizza shop. The four young men are working, taking calls and dealing with awkward customers. But this setting is only a very small part of the story and characterization here. The eponymous pizza shop is immediately brought to life with verge, energy and humour, but it is really a staging-post, a device to bring the four men (and their stories) together.

The performance starts with a set of rules – beginning with the usual warnings to switch off mobile phones and not talk during the performance. However, the rules develop into more of a comment on the type of storytelling we’re going to be watching. We’re encouraged not only to listen, but think about how we’re listening. We’re told to avoid earnest chin-in-hand gestures, for instance (something which caused a couple of audience members to shift slightly in their seats). The instructions develop further, laying out directives on how we should receive the stories we hear. Inconsistencies should not be taken as indications of falsehood, and we have no right to judge the credibility of the storytellers. This performance builds into a clear reminder that the young men on stage have told their stories numerous times before, to various officials (border guards, police, social workers, education officers) who have made assumptions and judgements about veracity based on the manner of telling, and to people offering assistance who have attempted to frame and shape the narrative into a more ‘acceptable’ form. This time, the men’s stories will be told how they want to tell them.

Tewodros (Teddy), Goitom, Emirjon and Syed travelled to the UK from Eritrea, Albania and Afghanistan as Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children. As the theatre piece unfolds, snippets and glimpses of their childhood experiences and the circumstances that led to their journey emerge. These are presented differently and in a somewhat fragmentary way – Emirjon remembers rabbit hunting in Albania, Goitom explains the fear of being forced into the army as a child – but the main focus on the piece is on the journeys the four took to escape conflict.

One of the really powerful things about Pizza Shop Heroes is the way the piece plays with difference and similarity. At times, each of the young men reveals something specific and unique about his experience or the circumstances from which he escaped, giving voice to the individuality of each refugee’s story. However, the piece brings these stories together into ensemble performances that merge the individual tales into a collective experience, stressing the echoes and parallels in the boys’ tales. Some elements of the story – the fear on arriving in an alien country, for example – transcend the particulars of individual lived experiences. Nevertheless, Pizza Shop Heroes is careful not to fall into universalizing – and when the boundaries become a little too blurred, there is some light-touch humour to reshape it (at one point, Goitom pauses mid-act and asks ‘Wait, whose memory is this?’)

Though the show addresses some very serious subject matter – from war and terrorism to grief, regret and fear – it is far from grim. The humour in Pizza Shop Heroes is very well-handled, as it punctuates the stories without undermining or trivializing them. There is a powerful humanizing effect in the use of wry jokes about cultural misunderstandings – one bit in particular, where Syed recounts the response he got to giving a teacher a bottle of Head and Shoulders as an Eid gift, brings the audience and performer together in a subtle but companionable appreciation of the dramatic irony.

The only criticism I have is that I’m not convinced by Kate Duffy’s on-stage facilitation and artistic direction. Sitting on the side-lines, encouraging the men to translate into English lines spoken in their first languages (which they sometimes do, and sometimes don’t), or taking on the part of one of the characters in a particular part of the story (like Emirjan’s uncle at the beginning of the rabbit-hunting memory), Duffy’s role feels a little too close to that of a workshop facilitator, which sometimes dilutes the immediacy of the young men’s narration, especially when she brings in her own personal experiences of working with Asylum Seeking Children.

Nevertheless, the narratives of Pizza Shop Heroes very much achieve Phosphoros Theatre’s stated aim of offering an ‘alternative perspective’. As well as offering memories of the past and commentary on the present, the piece moves towards a moving and compelling performance about the (potential) future, as the young men imagine fatherhood and the ways their own stories will shape the lives and ambitions of their children – including their desire to prevent their children being forced into adulthood before they’re ready. Humorous, emotive and ultimately filled with hope, the imagined future offers a strong and thought-provoking climax to the young men’s narratives.

Overall, Pizza Shop Heroes is a powerful, dynamic and highly engaging piece of theatre. I genuinely found myself disappointed when it came to an end, as it is more than successful in its aim of getting audiences to sit and listen to the stories the young men have chosen to tell. I would happily have listened to a lot more from them. Phosphoros Theatre are currently touring the piece around the UK, and if you have chance to catch one of the performances I’d definitely recommend you take it.

Pizza Shop Heroes is on at HOME, Manchester on the 4th-5th October, as part of the Orbit Festival, and then at other UK venues until December. To see more about the Orbit Festival 2019 programme, please visit the HOME website.

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