Michelle Burke tells Adam Shaw about how the discovery of an old scrapbook gave her an act
There is a famous 19th century poem by Mary Howitt in which a spider invites a fly into his parlour with the aim of ensnaring her. The cunning arachnid ultimately succeeds, in spite of the fly’s initial concerns that she will never leave if she chooses to accept his request. It is a tale warning against naivety and intends to teach children not to be swayed by flattery and charm.
Cork woman Michelle Burke is certainly charming, and, in her imitation of a bygone era, she displays the sincerest form of flattery. Though when she asks people to step into her parlour, not only do they come out again, but they do so with smiles on their faces.
“It’s very nostalgic and I think that’s why people can relate to it. It’s a bit of fun and people just seem to like it,” Michelle explained.
So what exactly is it? Step into my Parlour is a collection of songs she listened to growing up in Ballynoe intertwined with special guest performances and set in a mock-up room designed by her visual artist sister, Laura. This concept of being invited into a house for an evening of entertainment is what makes it so appealing, but Michelle revealed that a chance discovery is what led to its creation.
“The show came about in 2012, kind of by accident,” she said. “Laura had just moved into our grandparents’ house, and when she was knocking around my granddad’s old workstation in the attic – both he and his dad were cobblers – she came across an old scrapbook.
“It contained a load of old newspaper clippings, a lot of which came from a supplement called ‘Woman’s World’. “There were things like songs, poems, recipes, housekeeping tips and so on. This provided the inspiration for the act, but it also gave Michelle the chance to explore an avenue she had been considering for some time.
“I’m not from a very traditional music area, it was the contemporary stuff of the day, from the 1940s and 50s, that I heard growing up,” she said. “I’d been encouraged by Cathal Murphy up here in Scotland to sing the kind of music I’d been exposed to when I was younger and so we just went for it.”
The theme of nostalgia is the backbone for the show, while the influence of the special guests, who are invited to perform a ‘party piece’, adds to the idea of a family gathering.
One of the numbers was regularly covered by Michelle’s granddad’s sister and she believes the whole spectacle is so likeable because “everyone has a granny or an aunt who will have whipped out these songs or similar ones at some point. It does attract an older demographic because of the type of songs but it’s been watched and enjoyed by all ages and, since the arrangements are a bit quirky, it’s quite wide-ranging,” she said.
At the heart of the act lies enjoyment, having a good time, a reminisce and a giggle. Nowhere is this better represented than in the scrapbook; the starter-point for the show.
“Our great-grandmother had collected these clippings and it included postcards she had sent to my great-grandfather who was on Spike Island,” Michelle explained. “You can tell reading through them that she had a great sense of humour. “
And then there was this section of clippings from ‘Matron’s Replies’ which is kind of an agony aunt column.
“Some of them are hilarious – one of them was talking about the summer holidays and relationships. “It said something like ‘don’t send your man a letter before he sends you one first. If he doesn’t don’t get upset, move on’. It’s gas.”
The feeling of goodwill has had a knock-on effect for Michelle and Step into my Parlour.
“Speaking of nostalgia, we were recently commissioned by the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh where we use the framework of the show for working with people with dementia,” she said. “We did a two-week tour around the city doing some workshops and concerts, geared up towards people living with the condition.
“It’s been great for us and it’s had a great response.”
And it has been shipped across the world, with Michelle and her team having recently come back from a stint in India. Few would have thought that a bunch of old Irish songs would have such an effect on those in Delhi, but it soon became apparent that it wasn’t the songs themselves that were seen as captivating, it was the show’s values.
“It was quite interesting and a bit of a culture shock. We opened up these Indian theatre awards and it was really funny because we had no idea it would work,” Michelle explained. “But they told us afterwards how Indians are so into family and love hearing stories. The show translates over there.”
A sign of India’s vast population, in addition to the power of Ireland and its diaspora across the globe, showed that not everyone in the crowd was hearing these songs for the first time.
“A lady from southern India came up to me and told me how a group of Irish nuns at her school had taught her all these songs when she was younger. It was unbelievable,” she said.
Having moved north to Scotland, and travelled east to India, Michelle hopes that her act gets the opportunity to explore more new places in the future. A six month stint recording in Nashville sparked an interest in the American market, and she is confident that her show would have an audience out there. She is also “game” for a UK tour, given the number of Irish in the country and, in October, the performance will go full circle as she finally brings it to her homeland.
“I’m excited and terrified about that, to see what the home crowd are like because the show is so Irish,” she said.
Michelle hopes to attract many more people into her parlour over the coming years. But her prospective viewers needn’t worry, for her intentions, like she, are only good. Step into my Parlour is showing at The Famous Spiegeltent, Edinburgh, on August 14 and August 20.
• Tickets are £12.50 and can be bought at: tickets.edfringe.com/whatson/step-into-my-parlourmichelle-burke