Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London (****)
As one of the taboos only recently brought fully into the light, FGM (female genital mutilation) counts pretty high. For a long time, everyone pussy-footed around raising it for fear of causing offence to other cultures and their traditions.
But new thinking has found FGM outlawed in many African states and made it a criminal offence here. Charlene James’s timely and award-winning Cuttin’ It (winner last year of the George Devine Most Promising Playwright award and the Alfred Fagon Best New Play award) is a wonderfully humane, funny treatment of the subject, fully accessible to all.
Working through two Muslim Somali schoolgirls, one well settled here and clearly influenced by western and urban values; the other a recent arrival from war-torn Somalia, Muna is jokey, lippy, questioning; Iqra modest, bright, quietly devout. Both are outsiders.
Telling it as if through their inner voices and in dialogue, Iqra is trying to adjust but constantly drawn back to violent, war-torn memories. Muna, externally boisterous, exuberant is nursing her own terrible secret. Filled with delight for her younger sister’s approaching seventh birthday, she is also sickeningly aware that seven years of age is when young girls are `cut’ as a rite of Muslim passage to becoming women and remaining `pure’ for future husbands.
James tells the story with admirable restraint and respect, matched by Gbolahan Obisesan’s simple, understated production on Joanna Scotcher’s rising podium of grey steps illuminated at the end to show dozens of little girl’s shoes.
The vision is as shocking (with its distant holocaust echoes) as James’s material but her manner of revealing the girls’ stories through humour ensures we are involved from the start, laughing with them, sympathising with them before being faced with the terrible truth, from both sides.
Fantastic performances from newcomer Tsion Habte and Adelayo Adedayo (terrific also in Klippies last year at Southwark Playhouse), down the centuries, mothers have subjected their daughters to appalling cruelties, supposedly in their best husband searching interests – as Yang May Ooi’s Chinese account, Bound Feet Blues (Tristan Bates Theatre) also reminded us last year.
Thank goodness then for humane plays like Cuttin’ It who tell it like it is and without a scrap of sensationalism. Recommended.
Cuttin’ It runs at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs to July 9, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate, June 2016