“Mothers tell their kids this is a special day … on this day you’ll become a woman. All you have to do is – be brave.”
Cuttin’ It by Charlene James is that very rare event that takes a multitude of subjects and condenses them into meaningful and insightful creativity.
At its heart it’s a play about female genital mutilation (FGM), with a cast of two 15-year-olds: Muna (Asha Hasan); and Iqra (Hermon Berhane) who act and narrate their combined experiences as we navigate the impact of FGM on their lives.
Life as a 15-year-old is a rollercoaster – one-minute: highs; the next: lows – one simply feels everything, and everyone is critical. This is natural as you’re becoming an adult. These teenagers however have an added dimension to their lives. While they live in the UK, their ethnic roots are from Somalia. Charlene James’ writing and Nickie Mile-Wildin’s direction captures this excellently. The descriptive layering of their lives is displayed through language; their interactions with modern Britain; and their family ties.
The opening section of the play is razor-sharp in its depiction of the life of a teenager growing up in any metropolitan city. There’s the lack of appetite to wake up early for school; a love of popular culture and an addiction to mobiles and music. That said, Muna and Iqra both attend John Lansbury School and even share a class; however, they’ve never really spoken until a chance meeting brings them together at the end of a school day. A chance meeting that is delicate in tone and delivery, and acts as a counter point to the conflict that will be triggered later in the play.
Much of the humour (and there’s a surprising amount of it here), energy and verve of the play is adroitly delivered by Muna. Iqra on the other hand provides the pathos. On the surface, Muna is gutsy, confident and streetwise but underneath that exterior she’s vulnerable and caring. Iqra is much more reserved and tries to balance her desire to integrate with the desire to maintain the cultural traditions that have been passed down for generations. Both characters own their parts and deliver solid performs that really add depth to a witty and vibrant script. Yes, there were a few fluffed lines but that is how real humans talk; they forget or repeat things. There are pauses. All of this only adds to the tension that characterises the denouement.
The Studio at the Royal Exchange, our setting for this evening, is a small and intimate space. It has as its staging a backdrop reminiscent of Grenfell Tower. The tower has a TV monitor which unobtrusively displays the actor’s words as they say them. In front of the tower is a concreate staircase which is used for the stairs of the bus and the stairs of Iqra’s council estate. This works well as this is where our two key characters meet and where their journeys of discovery collide.
★ ★ ★ ★
Cuttin’ It is a refreshing play with a lot to say. It skilfully manages to thread together a multitude of themes and switch between humour and pathos with remarkable ease. The message being articulated here is that FGM is assault. It’s happening today and happening closer to home than you think. It should be called out and fear of being labelled a racist should not prohibit that call to action. All of this is sumptuously packaged into an inter-generational, multi-cultural fly on the wall account of modern Britain that will have you thinking long after you leave the theatre.