There’s something off-puttingly literal in calling a play about female genital mutilation ‘Cuttin’ It’. But this uneasy wit is typical of Charlene James’s sharp, sickly two-hander. A pair of schoolgirls speak in overlapping monologues that read like pages torn from teenage diaries. Their words spark with street slang, and ring with the nervy texture of a packed 3.30pm London bus, full of tensions and mobile phone tunes.
Iqra (Tsion Habte) is a refugee who recently arrived from Somalia, an unworldly outsider whose half-naïve observations raise an uncomfortable smile. Perceptively, she explains school staff have arranged counselling sessions for their peace of mind, not hers. She’s desperate for the friendship of happy-go-lucky, rowdy Muna – Adelayo Adedayo lets her words spill out like poetry, endlessly upbeat until she isn’t.
Under Gbolahan Obisesan’s agile direction, the two girls dance around each other, holding the audience spellbound with their tentatively shared intimacies – particularly impressive considering it’s Habte’s first stage appearance. It’s rare to see refugees, or Muslims, or black teenagers on stage who aren’t paper-thin stereotypes – let alone all three. But these girls burst with life: they’re damaged, but not even close to broken, by their experiences of FGM. And James’s text makes it clear that the practice is nothing to do with religion, but a cultural tradition that’s clung onto as other more visible ties with Somalia are cut.
There could be a little more insight into the unseen world of their Somali-speaking mothers, and what makes them willing to keep up a cycle of intergenerational betrayal. But what’s so exciting about this piece is its lean, taut narrative. In just an hour, we go from laughing with two schoolgirls who are building a delicate friendship – to sobbing as their lives fall apart.