Royal Exchange, Manchester.
Muna is good at “talkin’ and that“, listening to problems and dishing out advice. She’s funny, full of life and bursting with confidence. Yet, there’s something she can’t tell even her closest friends at school, a problem she’s too embarrassed to seek professional help for – she’s been ‘cut‘.
Playwright Charlene James refuses to accept staying silent as a response to female genital mutilation (FGM). Unsparingly exploring the practice, her award-winning play maps out the cultural clashes and generational divides that flare up around FGM, and makes human its impacts.
What’s so impressive about James’s writing is that the credibility of her characters, storyline and dialogue are as important as the issues she wants to explore. Never once does Cuttin’ It feel heavy-handed, contrived or preachy. It’s impassioned certainly, but moves at quite a pace, drawing you in with its disarming humour.
A moment of kindness on a bus journey brings Muna into contact with Iqra – a shy and thoughtful girl struggling to make friends in her new school. Iqra shares her Somali heritage, and their developing friendship seems to offer an opportunity for Muna to open up to someone about her secret fears. However, having fled from a war zone after all her family were killed, Iqra’s current home life is complicated. When Muna unexpectedly pays her a visit, things begin to turn sour.
Asha Hassan is a joy to watch, bringing an infectious energy to Muna and her cheeky but good-humoured chattin’. It’s a performance that digs deep too, adeptly capturing the complex turmoil that festers away beneath her easy-going smile.
As Iqra, Hermon Berhane uses both spoken English and sign language to convey her character’s thoughts and emotions. On one level, Iqra seems older than her years, as if she has seen more than she should, but Berhane subtly reveals her character’s underlying vulnerability, gently reminding us that in so many ways she is still a child.
Nickie Miles-Wildin’s assured and thoughtful production is captioned throughout – the words handwritten against a background that changes to suit the location or mood – from patterned wallpaper to shattered security glass and then fluffy-clouded blue skies.
A section of concrete staircase dominates the stage, while a backdrop traces the outlines of a brutal wall of tower blocks looming in the distance. Light occasionally emits half-heartedly from some of the flats. Later, when we discover what is going on behind the estate’s bland facade, one of the windows glows suddenly blood red.
Designer Amanda Mascarenhas uses bright colours sparingly and effectively. The cheerfully vivid hues of the decorations at a seven-year-old’s birthday party bring respite from the dark-grey palette, only to be joined jarringly by lengths of colourful cloth that will be used to disguise the bleeding of children who have been ‘cut’.
Such details are shocking, but what is hard to shake off is the familiarity of the setting and the relatability of the two young women. Cuttin’ It steadily erodes any distance between the audience and the issue at the heart of its story. In the process, FGM ceases to be something vaguely concerning that’s happening elsewhere, becoming instead a clearly defined harm being done to children closer to home.
A fire burns in the belly of James’s heartfelt play, and finds its voice in Muna’s furious words, “I need to scream it out, what they’re doing ain’t right.”
Performance seen on 13 January 2020.
Images by Anneka Morley.