Pizza Shop Heroes is must-see theatre
Let me say first, unequivocally: this is a beautiful piece of work.
In the weeks since, I've carried this show around with me with the same energy I'd carry a pizza on the tube — I want to protect it, I don't want anyone to spoil it and, thanks to the atmosphere of closeness and familiarity Phosphoros create, I kind of want it all to myself.
But, since this is a show in which every performer is using their lived experiences to tell the story of what it is to be a male child travelling to England as a refugee, I have a responsibility to share it — not just with those equally hungry to support migrant artists, but also with those who aren't, and who therefore need to see this work for different reasons entirely.
The show opens with four young men. Emirjon Hoxhaj, Goitom Fesshaye, Tewodros Aregawe and Syed Haleem Najibi introduce themselves, setting their ground rules. I've thought a lot about these rules since — I literally hate being told what to do, and there are a lot of rules to follow here, but in this instance I immediately and happily complied. When Emirjon said "don't sit like this" and did an impression of the earnest hand-on-chin forward lean — my classique stance — I didn't feel infantilised. Instead, the penny dropped that these are people who've been questioned and questioned since they were children, and who are now taking control of their environment. And you know what? It would be my absolute honour to shut up and listen.
The unwavering control with which these artists tell us their stories cuts straight to the core of what theatre can be. This work so clearly belongs to the men on stage that my usual fears surrounding the exploitation of trauma for the creation of ‘art’ are immediately crushed. When done with thoughtfulness, care, and very high ethical standards, theatre can be a safe space that allows artists to turn the tables on their experience and express themselves in whatever way they choose. Under these conditions, it can be freeing and cathartic —less about what the audience wants to see and more about what the artist needs to say.
Phosphoros know this. The first scene closes with Goitom holding our gaze, declaring, "I don't want you to feel sorry for me". It lands as one of the most powerful sentences I have ever heard. We nod back, together forming an open-hearted contract between those on stage speaking and us over here listening. I'm thankful for the reminder that theatre can be such a bonding space.
As the next hour unfolds (I think it was an hour? I don't know, it flew past, paced perfectly) we're offered glimpses into each man’s journey while being tongue-in-cheekily reminded of a couple of inconsistencies here and there. The phrase "...but it doesn't mean they're not telling the truth" is repeated, as if to an omnipresent home office.
There's movement too — this is a whistle stop run through colonialism and a soundtrack punctuated by rap music. I'm indulged with insights into playful rehearsal room collaboration pretty much every second of the show. Sometimes slick, sometimes clumsy, all the more perfect because its imperfections, Pizza Shop Heroes is real and laugh-out-loud funny, especially when they’re rinsing the most cringe-worthy of British-isms.
It's funny, that is, until it’s not. Just as I'm thinking about all the artistic languages they've used, Syed tells us of the dialects he picked up in order to survive his journey. When I think about their descriptions of what they were doing when they were 15 in contrast to what I was doing, I pause on the chasm between our experiences. I bring my hand to my face and quickly pull it back down again — I will not break their rules.
It's a little hypocritical I know, coming from someone who hates being told what to do, but: support Phosphoros’ work. It's time they received a significantly more joyous welcome. They asked me very clearly at the start not to feel sorry for them, and to be honest I don't. It's the opposite: they're heroes.
Head here to find tour dates and more about their work.