Newspapers, typecasts and, well Katie Hopkins, have turned the single mother into a villain. The image is almost etched into our minds: greasy hair, pack of fags, always on the way to Lidl. Yet, why are we programmed to think this way, and how did single mothers become the proverbial stone in society’s shoe? Penned as “part stand up, part TED talk and part verbatim”, Muvvahood arrives at the Park Theatre to lift the curtain on one of the nation’s favourite, and cruellest, stereotypes.
Filing into the theatre is akin to landing smack bang in the middle of a Little Britain episode. At the head of the stage stands a heavily pregnant, tracksuit-wearing woman chowing down on a mound of cheesy chips, under her lips is the bristling urge to say something like, “dat time in prison was bare jokes man”. A disgruntled Jamie Oliver pops up on the wall behind her. Prodding limp school lunches and bemoaning the downfall of good health, he begins to sob (presumably at the horror that a child may have touched a Curly Wurly today). The munching mother-to-be can’t take the judgement. She hands the chips to an unsuspecting audience member, pulls her hair out from a skyscraper ponytail, and pops the balloon stuffed under her hoodie. Suddenly, we meet Libby Liburd, a real single mother.
Distressing, maddening and tragically revealing, Liburd’s story is an integral part of the show. Her husband had left her, her son depended on her, and the court system had failed her. “You’re a single mother; you’ll get a council flat”, the judge had sneered upon approving the illegal eviction that left the family homeless. It’s hard to not to feel guilty as Liburd recreates a real life horror story before our eyes, still brimming with all the lingering emotion. Guilty, not for being childless with a secure roof over our heads, but for not knowing. Guilty of ignorance when she fell mercy to capped benefits, soaring childcare, private landlords, and, on top of it all, being slapped with the label of “slum mum’ by, who else, but the Daily Mail?
But, it is important not to detach her experience from the broader reality of lone motherhood today, as various statistics remind us throughout the show. “91% of single parents are mothers”; “2% of single parents are teenagers”; “half of all single mothers give birth while married”. The show is as informative as it is anecdotal, and a poignant section is reserved for the stories of other single mothers.
It is here where Liburd really comes into her own. Switching between footwear to signify the different individuals, she literally puts herself in the shoes of the women she interviewed over several years. Every tale is pleasantly distinctive, but all seem to float along the same line of unnerving hopelessness, and Liburd captures it with startling efficacy and shattering emotion. A piercing horror shoots round the room when we hear that one woman, having been forced into the temporary accommodation that is often visited by abusive husbands, is encouraged to “just ignore the screams”.
Grim tales like this remind us how shielded we are by circumstance from these struggles; you can’t and won’t know unless you are a single mother yourself. Consequently, Muvvahood is a crucial uncovering of an intrinsically flawed system failing many women today. Yes, there are some slightly daft bits – an awkward attempt at audience participation and overzealous dance about how great a certain word is – but Liburd shines with her intimate storytelling ability. Ultimately, it’s time we stop vilifying mothers for the sordid crime of not having a partner.
Muvvahood is playing at various venues until December 1 2017
Photo: David Monteith-Hodge