Cuttin’ It – Royal Exchange Theatre (Studio)

We live in an age of media globalisation, instantly bringing news from around the world to your fingertips. Sadly, the side effect of this overload of information is a sense of detachment and deniability. It is possible to be confronted with statistics that, globally, over 200 million women have experienced female genital mutilation (FGM) and deny the fact that this happens in our country, ignorantly believing that it only happens elsewhere.

There is a frustrating insular mentality that is becoming increasingly prevalent in society, despite concrete evidence being readily available on our smartphones. We can easily become detached to real people being affected by global issues, and it can seem that accountability and empathy have no place in this modern world.

Charlene James redresses this, bringing the challenging subject of female genital mutilation to the stage, importantly telling the human stories behind the statistics, forcing her audience to consider the lasting, devastating impact FGM can have on women.

Charlene James' Cuttin It Royal Exchange Theatre Nickie Miles-Wildin Hermon Berhane Asha Hassan Manchester Theatre Review
Shine bright like a diamond. Iqra (Hermon Berhane) and Muna (Asha Hassan). Picture Credit – Anneka Morley

Cuttin’ It deftly manages this difficult subject with sensitivity and respect, without becoming preachy or didactic. It plainly tells the stories of two teenage girls, prompting the audience to draw their own moral conclusions. Although female genital mutilation was outlawed in the UK in 1985, there are still illicit, back-street businesses, where young girls are taken to be ‘cut’. It saves the cost of flying to Somalia.

FGM is a life-changing practice that both Iqra (Hermon Berhane) and Muna (Asha Hassan) have experienced, and are coming to terms with. They both have Somali heritage, attend the same school, and get the 47 bus. Iqra is a quiet and insular, whereas Muna is chatty and buoyant. Sometimes opposites attract, and the pair strike up an unlikely friendship.

Cuttin’ It is much funnier than I was expecting. Disarmingly so. This is partly due to Charlene James’ fantastic script, laced with teenage wit and humour. It is also established through Asha Hassan‘s sublime performance as Muna. Hassan has an engaging charm and vivacity, which is infectious to watch. She constructs a character who is urban and streetwise, in her manner, her musical tastes, and her street-talk dialect. Hassan is an exceptionally talented, versatile actor, confidently rendering both comic humour and emotional vulnerability in her performance.

Although her character is more reserved, Hermon Berhane shines in the scenes of friendship that she shares with Hassan. Her dialogue is accompanied by captions and BSL is incorporated into her performance. It is an absolute delight to watch Berhane joyfully dancing and signing along to Rihanna’s Diamonds. Her actions are mirrored by Hassan, creating a close bond between the two characters, despite them being in different locations. It demonstrates Nickie Miles-Wildin‘s excellence as a director.

Charlene James' Cuttin It Royal Exchange Theatre Nickie Miles-Wildin Hermon Berhane Asha Hassan Manchester Theatre Review
Waiting for the 47 bus. Picture Credit – Anneka Morley.

With BSL and captions, it is brilliant to see a production that is so inclusive, although on the night I saw the play, there were technical issues with the captions. They kept freezing. Hermon Berhane’s Iqra is the only character whose dialogue is signed, so this may have caused confusion for those with hearing impairments. Although, I am confident that these were only teething problems that would have been ironed out.

Cuttin’ It gradually introduces the subject of FGM, and the play becomes increasingly uncomfortable to watch as the tone gets darker. It is not explicit at first, as the two young women struggle to confront the issue. When Iqra and Muna come to terms with what happened to them as children, harrowing details are recounted through parallel narratives.

They both describe being anxious in the waiting room, before being pinned down by their mothers and the elders. Their screams are muffled by rags, and their wounds are covered in brightly coloured bandages, disguising the horrific mutilation that lies underneath. Sometimes they are not enough to stop the blood. The stories are so vividly detailed, it is difficult to avoid picturing them, imagining the stench, and hearing the desperate screams of young girls. Such details are repugnant and shocking, but deeply impactful. Hermon Berhane’s blood-curdling scream struck me to the core.

Charlene James' Cuttin It Royal Exchange Theatre Nickie Miles-Wildin Hermon Berhane Asha Hassan Manchester Theatre Review
Hermon Berhane’s Iqra screams. Picture Credit – Anneka Morley.

Repeated motifs are cleverly used to create a jarring effect that ensures the play loses none of its impact. There is a disturbing repetition of travel, with a fateful car ride mirroring the innocent bus journeys on the 47. The innocence and fun earlier in the play are offset against the horrific tragedy at the end. This tragic conclusion is made even more emotionally devastating through the underlying motif in Munotida Chinyanga‘s excellent sound design, when a muffled, distorted version of Rihanna’s Diamonds plays in the background, harking back to earlier scenes of pleasant friendship. To see this jovial innocence lost is truly affecting.

Cuttin’ It is a powerful, hard-hitting drama, with two magnificent central performances. It educates its audience about FGM by treating the subject with respect and sensitivity. It is a profound play that you have to let sink in, having taken me nearly a week to fully absorb, and articulate my response to it.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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