Cuttin’ It – Review Royal Exchange

Photo by Anneka Morley

We’re kicking off 2020 with a powerful thought provoking production from Royal Exchange Theatre. Cuttin’ It is a story of FGM and the issues this complex and often controversial topic seems to raise. This is also a story of displaced communities and – at the heart of it that aged old tale – of teenagers just growing up and coming to terms with their place in this world.

FGM, for those that are unaware what this acronym stands for, is Female Genital Mutilation. It is still a custom that is practiced around the world and not just in the places you think it’s being practiced. 200 million women globally have experienced FGM, from Africa to Asia, the UK to America, it as the programme notes quite rightly points out, “affects many more women than we thought”.

Charlene James wrote Cuttin’ It after she’d watched the documentary The Cruel Cut by Leyla Hussein, and after learning that FGM is still practiced in Britain. The story follows two teenage girls from a Somalian background, who take contrasting views on the subject matter. James weaves a captivating story around FGM, not just solely focussing on the contentious theme, but also creating several sub plots that are just as intriguing to the audience.

Of course when it was first premiered in 2014 it won a host of awards and praise. Indeed it earned James, the George Devine Award, the Alfred Fagon Award, the Critics’ Circle Theatre Award, the UK Theatre Award for Best New Play, and the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Most Promising Playwright.

Such pedigree would only serve to add to the anticipation when it was announced that Royal Exchange would be producing it for their Studio setting.

Playing the two main roles are Asha Hassan, who delights in the part of Muna, coming across as one of those sprightly, vivacious teenage girls we have all grown accustomed to. Playing the part of Iqra is deaf actress Hermon Berhane, who similarly conveys a stoic and strong performance of her character. James’ wonderful vision of creating these two characters that at the outset seem to be on the opposite ends of each others’ spectrum, but converge to find a middle ground. That aspect of the play is not only acted out so brilliantly by Hassan and Berhane, but also under the astute direction of Nickie Miles-Wildin, we are able to see this more than just a story of two girls and their experiences of FGM.

Of course having a production whereby the story rests on the shoulders of just two characters can often be its own downfall. The fact that it’s not is testimony to the powerful performances of its two leading ladies. Berhane is adept at showing Iqra as more than just a complex character who is a refugee of war. She is able to give an honest and at times an admirable subtle portrayal of her character’s turmoil.

Meanwhile, Hassan, positively lights up the stage. She is wonderfully natural in her habitat as that vibrant teenage girl with a whole lot of sass. Nonetheless, Hassan does not portray Muna as something one dimensional, giving an outstanding portrait of her character’s darker moments, showcasing a vulnerability to the audience.

This is a well crafted production and an interesting choice from the Royal Exchange. It’s company are in it’s own words an “eclectic group of women; Eritrean, Somali, White British, Deaf, disabled, aged 19-55” and centred around a community that often isn’t as represented in the world of theatre, especially those patrons that take their seats in this arena.

And what’s more, it is a hard hitting issue that the medium of theatredom is trying to play its part in tackling, As Miles-Wilding noted:

“It is not one particular culture. It is not a women only issue. It’s global. A human issue. A parenting issue. The way to eradicate it is to educate, talk to people, debunk the myth, explain the risks and share the knowledge. Through art we have the power to make change”

Productions such as these are such a vital ingredient in today’s world. It’s hard hitting themes, produced by a diverserse production crew, is hopefully the kind of show that can change the traditional landscape in theatre.

Verdict: A thought provoking play that tackles the controversial issue of FGM. Hard hitting themes are played out somewhat brilliantly by Asha Hassan and  Hermon Berhane. 3.5 out of 5 stars

What: Cuttin’ It
Where: Royal Exchange Manchester
When: 13th January 2020