In a cramped underground room at the Spotlites showspace, a milk can, a bag of feed, a square table and a row of coat hooks are clumped unceremoniously at one end of the room. It’s next to nothing to work with, but Noni Stapleton, star of Penny Dreadful, offers up a display of such warmth and flavour in the realisation of her own darkly comedic script that it’s no chore to overlook the unpolished production values.
Charolais tells the tale of Siobhan, an Irish ‘townie’ taken on at a farm, who falls for Jimmy the farmer and promptly finds herself pregnant. She incurs the wrath of Brieda, Jimmy’s mother, and is drawn to homicidal lengths to win back Jimmy’s attention from his favourite ‘heifer’ of the valuable Charolais breed. It’s here that Stapleton’s script starts to have some real fun; the Charolais – French, of course – narrates her worldly woes and fantasises about her upcoming tupping (“It sounds so undignified, no?”) from her perfect bull. It might sound trite and silly, but carefully loved monologue and a genuinely brilliant performance see the juxtaposition of a sexual, sensual cow and a supressed farm girl desperate for validation find sad affectation and resonance.
It’s easy to imagine Charolais on screen, as a serial comedy or film, such is the cinematic quality of Stapleton’s vision; she has plumbed the depths of her own intelligent creation and located a striking humanity with which to bring the comedy and bathos of the dysfunctional family to a familiar life. And when Stapleton shows off her perfect, slow and steady calf blink, all huge eyes and chomping jaws, you’ll be hard pressed to hold back the belly laughs. It’s a production that would benefit tenfold from a proper theatre space, but this highly talented actor makes the best of what’s on offer; Charolais is undoubtedly one of the Fringe’s most unjustly overlooked shows this year.