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saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Cuttin' It
The Young Vic
27th May 2016


Tsion Habte and Adelayo Adedayo as Iqra and Muna

Photography © David Sandison

I'm probably showing my grand old age here, but I remember reading a excerpt of model and former UN ambassador Waris Dirie's Desert Rose in the 1990s, in which she honestly and openly recounted her experience of female genital mutilation as a child. Perhaps rather naively (and again I refer to my age, I wasn't even in my teens at that point), I remember feeling so grateful that I lived in the UK, because that just wouldn't happen over here. As playwright Charlene James is determined to point out in Cuttin' It, that notion simply isn't true. 23,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk of FGM in England and Wales right now, with female circumcision taking place both abroad and on our turf. It's something we would all like to believe isn't a British problem. It's everyone's problem.

Although FGM isn't exactly a light topic, there's plenty of easy humour in Cuttin' It. Protagonist Muna (Adelayo Adedayo) is incredibly relatable. She's warm, chatty, funny and like most of us in London, is fully integrated into this city and yet wasn't born here. Muna is so Westernised in her language and attitude though that it's easy to forget her parents are actually first generation Somali immigrants with more traditional values. She can never quite manage to crawl out of bed in the morning, loves dancing around to a bit of Rihanna with her iPod on and will quite happily talk back to whoever she feels deserves it, older generation or not. One day Muna forges a chance connection with fellow pupil Iqra (Tsion Habte), a rather more recent incomer who hasn't quite settled in yet. It turns out they both have some similar experiences of Somalia and could both do with a friend.

With the prior knowledge that Cuttin' It is a play about FGM, the way the plot develops feels inevitable and predictable and yet it remains compelling watching throughout. Sometimes with something so barbaric, you just can't rip your eyes away. What makes James' writing so powerful isn't the element of surprise, rather it's her attempt to bring balance to a hugely sensitive and important issue. Oh, of course she has an opinion, but by humanising those who support FGM, James' writing becomes all the more harrowing. We can't just round up a bunch of panto villains and boo at them, we have to acknowledge that there are some people out here who genuinely believe allowing their girls to have their most intimate parts hacked off with crude blades think they are acting in their best interests. That's even more hard-hitting.

The majority of James' play consists of two quite separate monologues side by side, with limited direct interaction between the characters. Whilst this makes it harder for director Gbolahan Obisesan to establish a relationship between the two girls, the flip side is it allows him to really help get us into their respective heads. Adedayo delivers her lines with a natural, very fluid rhythm, her energy drawing us into the story and keeping us engaged. Muna's inner narrative sprints incredibly fast, her thoughts developing and multiplying and her sense of identity well defined. Habte however has a strange, detached demeanour when playing Iqra, her choice of language stilted, her voice heavily accented, even her expressions plain odd at times. Obisesan deliberately makes these two girls seem very different outwardly and yet both just as human as the other.

Although we may not be able to understand Iqra's views, we understand she holds them to be valid, and her very earnest desire to befriend Muna comes out in a way that helps us to identify with her, on some level. Whether you would go as far as to say she's been brainwashed, she is clearly a product of her upbringing and she's not responsible for how she was raised. There's no point in demonising Iqra and women like her, what is really needed is more education and more awareness. Cuttin' It doesn't feel politicised whilst you're watching it, but it is a call to arms.

Joanna Scotcher's set is simple with strong, clean lines. We originally dismiss her work as competent if nondescript, however it's very well thought out and culminates in some truly haunting imagery. The impact of this is further brought out by Azusa Ono's stark lighting and Adrienne Quartly's evocative soundscape. Although the design feels subtle all around, Scotcher, Ono and Quarterly wait patiently for their moment to shine, and when it comes, they're magnificent.

I suppose there's a risk some people will read the subject matter of Cuttin' It and dismiss this as some "worthy play" as opposed to one that they'll be glad they saw. I really hope people aren't put off by the big issues that James wants to explore, because Cuttin' It is such an unsettling, harrowing and gritty production with tremendous acting.

Cuttin' It opened on 20th May 2016 and runs until 11th June 2016 at The Young Vic.

Nearest tube station: Waterloo (Bakerloo, Northern, Jubilee)

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