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Cuttin' It (Young Vic)

Charlene James' new play tackles the issue of female genital mutilation in Britain

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

More than any other art-form, theatre can humanize the headlines. You read about female circumcision in your free paper, buried away on page seven or something; perfectly skimmable stuff. It's happening in London, but seems so far away; an abstract issue with its very own acronym - FGM. Female genital mutilation. How often do you think what that means or entails?

Charlene James's two-hander, winner of the George Devine award, offers an unflinching and personal account. Originally written for radio, it follows two Somali-born schoolgirls as they strike up a friendship on the bus. Five months after watching her family murdered at home, Iqra's taking London in - a quiet, observant soul. Muna, raised over here, is a typical London 15 year-old - bright-eyed and unrepentant, plugged into Rihanna and always running late.

If it starts as a culture clash - two teenagers, so similar but so different - Cuttin' It almost trips into its subject. One mention of "bleach and blood" and you clock its direction. Muna believes her younger sister, fast approaching seven, is soon to be "cut" just as she was, while Iqra spends her Saturdays helping out with the procedure, cleaning the council flat that serves as a clinic and trying to soothe the young girls as they scream.

The form echoes the hidden nature of FGM. These two teenage girls, sat on the bus with the rest of us, are both scarred beneath the surface, both stitched up beneath their clothes. The same is true of London itself - all that goes on out of sight. "This is real," Muna scolds us at one point. "They are cutting little girls in tower blocks on a Saturday morning - like it's nothing."

It's a piece that grows increasingly insistent, and James balances tenderness with directness, detailing the scene with vivid, searing images: a waiting room full of children, all unaware of what's coming; small bodies bandaged from the waist down like casualties of war. It's quietly arresting and if Cuttin' It stresses the immediate agony of the procedure itself, a flash of pain that arrives unannounced, it leaves us to consider the full implications. Black plimsolls come to stand for a life lived with less colour, not as fully felt as it should be, and Joanna Scotcher's extraordinary design springs a surprise that underlines both the individual loss and the extent of the issue.

Every now and then, in Gbolahan Obiesasan's staging, the two girls slip into synchronicity. The same height, the same build, they suddenly fall into step, at one point turning towards Mecca to pray the same prayers. It adds a contemplative tone to the conversational start, and you really warm to these two young women as they warm to one another. Both are beautifully performed: Adelayo Adedayo has a spritely cynicism, while Tsion Habte plays Iqra with a gentle ethereality and a stoical acceptance of the rite. If you feel like you get to know the pair of them, that's the key: you can't shake FGM off as abstract or anonymous, and this superbly written play shakes the scales from your eyes.

Cuttin' It runs at the Young Vic until 11 June, then tours to the Birmingham Rep (14 to 18 June), Royal Court (23 June to 13 July), Sheffield Crucible (20 to 23 July) and the Yard (26 to 30 July).