Theatre Review: Pizza Shop Heroes (Summerhall, Edinburgh Festival Fringe) ★★★★

Based on the lived experience of the play’s actors, who all came to the UK between 2013 and 2015 as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, Pizza Shop Heroes is a story about male and cultural identity, as well as the roots and routes of migration.

The piece is performed by Tewodros Aregawe, Goitom Fesshaye, Emirjon Hoxhaj and Syed Haleem Najibi with support from Phosphoros Theatre’s Artistic Director Kate Duffy, and written and directed by Dawn Harrison. Set in the eponymous pizza shop, all four characters initially concentrate on kneading dough, answering phones, and taking orders from people who don’t seem to know what they want. The men begin to unpack the cultural differences they’ve encountered in England, act out a brief history of colonialism, then work backwards through the stories of their individual odysseys.

The storytelling is interspersed with phone calls in the men’s own languages, which has a visible affect on each. When asked by Duffy to translate, the responses reveal a little more about their families back home, and the sacrifices they have made to make it to the UK. The movement sequences are particularly striking, highlighting some of the darkest moments of their journeys. We may all be familiar with stories of refugees climbing into dinghies and lorries to cross the border, but hearing these accounts first hand is very sobering indeed. Add to that the dangers children face even getting to that point – extortion, beatings and the horrors of detention centres to name but a few – and it is painfully clear the decisions to travel are certainly not taken lightly. As Najibi states poignantly, there is no “Je suis Kabul”.

Throughout the piece, there is a sense of fun that you might not expect. The cast have an incredible warmth and sense of camaraderie, and the scene depicting their proud mothers is hilarious. Hoxhaj in particular has a twinkle in his eye and a dry delivery that elicits many laughs, while Aregawe, Fesshaye and Najibi each breathe a mix of pathos and humour into their tales.

The actors explicitly say they do not want the audience to feel sorry for them, and although the play is thought-provoking, the overriding feeling at the end is one of hope. Their exploration of fatherhood, of the differing expectations of first and second generation migrants, and of all the men’s imagined futures are both touching and full of good natured jibes. Most importantly, these are their stories, told the way they want to tell them, and very much in their own voices.

Pizza Shop Heroes plays at Summerhall, Edinburgh until 11th August.

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