Mikel Murfi Walking the walk along the Blackwater valley

Mikel Murfi brings his one-man play to Co Cork as part of a new fit-up festival, writes Alan O’Riordan

Mikel Murfi Walking the walk along the Blackwater valley

EARLY in 2012, actor Mikel Murfi spent time driving around rural county Sligo meeting older people and listening to their stories, or “yarns” as he would say. The result, a commission from Bealtaine Festival and the Hawk’s Well Theatre, was The Man in the Woman’s Shoes, a one-man play that Murfi populates with the characters and turns of phrase he heard during his research.

The play’s initial run, he says, was for a handful in day-care centres and a hospital. Since then, it’s been as far afield as New York, won a Stewart Parker Award, and can next be seen during the Blackwater Valley Fit-Up Festival, touring a number of venues in North and East Cork.

“I never envisaged this,” says the Sligo man. “I suppose it’s the little show that could.”

Murfi’s play centres on a mute cobbler, Pat Farnon, who, when we meeting him, is walking the five miles into town in the shoes of Kitsy Rainey, a woman whom Pat adores. The trait of a cobbler walking in woman’s shoes to stretch them out comes from a cobbler from Roscommon a relative of Murfi’s wife. But the rest of the patchwork of characters and events is woven, he says, “loosely from people you’d recognise from Sligo. I’ve changed the few names, but it is authentic. And from those people I met, I got the vernacular, the authentic rhythms and phrases. You pick up gems along the way.”

The play is local but it’s proven to have universal appeal to audiences from the start.

“At some stage, I had to wonder if it would travel,” Murfi says. “When we came to tour, I thought, ‘is this too parochial?’ But no, there are characters like that in every town. Then, it came to New York and I was thinking again, ‘they’ll never get it’. But you forget that New Yorkers have been dealing with Irish culture for 150 years.

“I think genuinely there is a something gorgeous in the nature of Irish people of that age, and that’s woven into the fabric of the thing. And people who see it are inclined to think of their own grandfather, say, or what their cousin used to say.”

Murfi has kept an open ear for this kind of feedback, adding here and there to the play.

“My wife says that, by the time we’re finished with it, it’ll be four hours long and I’ll be old enough for the part,” he jokes.

The Man in the Woman’s Shoes is characterised by two things: Murfi’s performing brilliance and an unapologetic sentimentality. The tone, he says, is partly due to its original intended audience.

“I think it is to do with when I was making it with older people in mind. I was not going to bring conflict and too much drama.” But there’s more to it than that. Murfi has aesthetic convictions here.

“The serious critics who talk down to us will pooh-pooh sentimentality, but I am a complete fan of it. And a fan of what’s sentimental is as entitled to go to the theatre as the next person.”

If a repudiation is needed for the arbiters of high theatrical taste, certainly The Man in the Woman’s Shoes does repudiate the notion that, if something is sentimental, it can’t be sharp, funny and of a high standard.

This play is all that, delivered via the physical and vocal range of Murfi’s talents.“I learned a long time ago when I was training in Paris,” he says, “that you have to embrace some things you’re good at. I’m not built for the very serious roles. If I’m the bearer of the bad news that the king is dead in a Greek tragedy, the audience will be laughing. Even the chorus will find it funny.”

The Man in the Woman’s Shoes is on at the Community Hall, Knockanore, February 3; Ballyduff Community Hall, February 4; at Castlelyons Community Centre on February 5; The Mall Arts Centre, Youghal, on February 6, and the Palace Theatre, Fermoy, on February 7.

Those You Pass on the Street and Under Milk Wood are also performed during the Fit-Up Festival. For full details see www.fit-uptheatrefestival.com.

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