Phosphoros, who work with unaccompanied young men, were up with Dear Home Office, a show performed by eight young refugees that spoke truth to power. It was ragged, but definitely essential.
The company has come a long way since then, recently becoming an Associate Company at London’s Unicorn Theatre. Their latest show, Pizza Shop Heroes at Summerhall, is not quite as ragged; but is just as engagingly exuberant and sadly just as necessary. Some of the same young performers from 2016 are still awaiting decisions on their cases from the Home Office.
There is a pointed segment in which one young man points out that, in the battle to get bureaucrats to believe their stories of having to flee their birth countries as a result of the dangers posed to them, the very minimum they require is a signed letter from the Taliban on headed notepaper detailing the threats against them. The show is full of such moments of wry, sorrowful humour.
The Pizza Shop Heroes
But it is also enormously reflective too about what has been gained and what has been lost in making the perilous journey to get the UK, a journey whose horrors many of them never tell their families about in detail. They have survived, but will the younger brothers who will be sent on the same journey by families desperate to keep their sons safe. Families unaware that the real cost of the journey is not the money paid to people smugglers - but in the terrible dangers faced, and the sense of loss for a place that feels like home. There is a wonderful physical sequence after the young pizza workers have each received a phone call from their family. When words fail and they express their internal turmoil in movement, their limbs seem like liquid.
The show could perhaps do with more choreography and fewer words, and a little more shaping, but this is a show in which the lived experience of the performers shines through, reminding us that if they are heroes it is because they have to be. They don’t have any choice.
How Not to Drown (Traverse) is also a true-life story, co-written by Dritan Kastrati & Nicola McCartney and produced by ThickSkin. It is based on Kastrati’s own experiences of being sent from the mountains near Kosovo to the UK, quite alone and at just 11 years old. Kastrati is part of the ensemble so he is effectively playing a version of himself.
Ajjaz Awad, Reuben Joseph, Daniel Cahill and Esme Bayley in How Not to Drown. Photo by Mihaela Bodlovic
The title is deceptive because it refers not just to the desperate effort of Kastrati and his fellow refugees to survive the crossing of the Adriatic, but also to his appalling experiences on arrival in the UK in the British care system. Care is clearly the wrong word for an intervention that dumps a non-English-speaking traumatised 11-year-old far away from his brother and community with foster parents who have little interest in doing any parenting or caring.
It is staged with Thickskin’s normal physical and visual flair on Becky Minto’s clever wooden design. The platform can, in a beat, give us a boat or a lorry - but also a sense of internal fear or emotion as it shifts and rotates. This is a painful, heartfelt show. One which reminds of the emotional costs of being forced to leave home as a child and being denied love.
Pizza Shop Heroes runs at Summerhall until Aug 11.
How Not to Drown runs at the Traverse Aug 9-11, 13-18, 20-25.