Two local women are using comedy to reflect some of the quirks of rural West Cork life, while also helping to raise much-needed funds in the community, writes Áilín Quinlan
What has been dubbed the West Cork version of d’Unbelievables has gained significant traction across the region in recent years. The Eileen & Marilyn comedies, with their gentle but hilariously accurate parodies of rural West Cork life, have been leaving audiences in stitches.
The female comedy duo, which comprises theatre director and performer Karen Minihan, a former solicitor, from Schull, and her friend Terry Leiber, a schoolteacher and former actress, first breathed life into their alter-egos back in 2009 as a joke for a fancy dress party in Ballydehob.
The hugely positive reaction from others at the party that night was followed by a string of invitations for the pair to perform in more formal dramatic settings.
Since then they’ve written and performed a string of comedies incorporating the bickering duo – and have subsequently become the go-to comedy act for community fundraisers throughout local
towns and villages.
The relationship between Eileen, the stoic ex-wife of a farmer and committed Daniel O’Donnell fan who is overcoming the aftermath of divorce, and her alleged ‘cousin’ and not-so-best-friend Marilyn – a glamorous English divorcee with two great passions; men and alcohol – has become a byword for belly-laughs across West Cork.
The Eileen & Marilyn cabaret comedies have become increasingly well-known with Minihan and Leiber, backed by musical director Norman Collins, performing before packed audiences in halls, schools, hotels and even private houses, often as part of fundraising evenings. The plays, which are also co-written by Norman Collins, have quietly but steadily earned a solid word-of-mouth reputation.
‘The plays are a commentary on traditional rural West Cork life without being judgemental,’ says Karen, who plays the part of Eileen, while Terri takes on the role of Marilyn Silverman.
‘People recognise the character of Eileen – there’s a little bit of her in all of us. People regularly tell us that they know “Eileens” – and that they themselves would like to be Marilyn! They love the flightiness and the fun and the flirtation that goes with her – I think that’s part of the secret.’
It’s the guaranteed fun that attracts the organisers of fundraising events to ask Karen and Terri to perform.
Ellen Logan of the Schull Regatta organising committee explains: ‘I’ve attended a few of their performances – people laugh from start to finish and go out of the place on a high. They are uplifting,’ she says, adding that the committee decided to invite the duo to perform for the regatta fundraiser after seeing a performance in the local school.
‘What they‘re doing is everyday reality for many people in the community. People really empathise with the characters and with the storylines, which are very ordinary everyday issues. They are so light-hearted and funny – people relate to that.’
Canon Paul Willoughby, of Kilmacomogue Union of Parishes is a member of the board of management at St James National School in Durrus which, on January 6th based a fundraiser for the school around an Eileen & Marilyn show. He says
‘There is a very gentle resonance with the local community, on top of which they poke a bit of gentle fun at the way things are.
It holds up a mirror so we can all see ourselves and laugh together. It’s not cruel or mocking. They’re like a female version of Jon Kenny and Pat Shortt in d’Unbelievables.’
‘The shows are very much about rural community life and people really identify with the storyline,’ says Karen, whose own, separate script, The Eileen Monologues was filmed by director Helen Selka and screened last year after the stage play caught Selka’s attention.
‘The story of a woman in a rural farming community, for example, undergoing separation and divorce; it’s a story that is often not told, along with the human, emotional fallout,’ says Karen.
‘The Marilyn element highlights the outsider’s view of these rural relationships, with all their strengths and all their foibles,’ she continues. ‘The shows are about the juxtaposition of day-to-day life in a traditional rural community and the modern context with all the complexities of modern life. There’s no judgement.’