by Charlene James at The Royal Court
(First produced at the Young Vic.)
This powerful, heartbreaking and haunting piece of theatre begins as a seemingly innocent, upbeat and sweet story about how two teenage girls become friends. This deception which lulls the audience into a false sense of security makes the rest of the play all the more devastating and shocking because this isn’t another ‘nice little’ story. This award winning play by Charlene James, instead broaches the difficult topic of FGM (female genital mutilation) in the UK, and gets it absolutely right. James dedicates the play to the staggering 500,000 girls and women in Europe that Amnesty International estimates are suffering from the life-long consequences of FGM. The play with it’s sharp wit and clever writing is fuelled by a sense of urgency and an anger that will eventually bring any unsuspecting audience member to tears by the end.
It is refreshing to see two female actors on stage, playing complicated and compelling females not stereotypes, whilst taking on the huge demands of the play. Adelayo Adedayo gives an outstanding performance and the acting from the small cast made up of Adedayo and Tsion Habte is brilliant throughout. Adedayo plays Muna originally from Somalia, a feisty, street smart and popular teenager who loves Rihanna and her little sister. Habte plays Iqra, a mild mannered, naive and shy teenager who recently moved to England from Somalia following the death of her family. The two teenagers who at first seem to be opposites, happen to connect and realise they share the same secret: they are both victims of FGM. Muna is scared her little sister will be mutilated meanwhile Iqra believes it is the only way for a girl to become a woman, the only way to be pure for their future husbands, a tradition that must continue…
The imposing set, made up of a concrete block of stairs, is effective in making the audience feel alienated and distanced. This adds to the sense of unease and discomfort we feel as the story unfolds. That is until the last moments of the play, when the set turns sinister and almost becomes a graveyard for many young girls that are victims of FGM. This eloquent production from Gbolahan Obiesesan and striking image to end is enough to leave the audience thinking about FGM for a long time to come. The message is simple: the estimated 137,000 girls and women living in the UK with FGM (*1) cannot be ignored any longer. Since 1985, FGM has been illegal in the UK and since 2003 it has been illegal to take a child out of the UK to be cut (*2). This alone however, as clearly illustrated in this production, is not enough to stop FGM and more action needs to be taken.
In this harrowing and devastating piece of theatre, we begin by laughing with two school girls and end up weeping as their lives are shattered. The ending of the piece does not particularly come as a surprise, perhaps because of the inevitability of FGM for girls born into this culture. The piece begs questions such as: ‘how is this happening in the UK?’ ‘How can we stop it in the UK until it is ended worldwide?’ ‘Why is this even happening at all?’ This production highlights that FGM has more to do with community, culture and tradition than anything else: “We do it because we have always done it”, “It is who we are” and “We do it because it is our culture.” It seems so impossible and so unjustified that this is happening that the haunting thought: ‘What will make them stop?’ floats in the air like a bad smell as the lights go down. Unrelenting, emotional, moving and intensely uncomfortable: book your tickets for this show now because this story needs to be heard and change needs to happen. Prepare to be haunted for some time after the show.