It's the only show in town

When the good people of Janvry put on a village play, they do it on an epic scale. John Lichfield reports from the French community where everyone plays a vital role
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God, aka the Mayor of Janvry, says: "You have come to a village of crazy people." Crazy maybe, but charmingly crazy and courageously crazy. Janvry, like the small Gaulish village in the Asterix books and movies, is a village determined to resist the irresistible advance of a powerful but shambolic, alien culture.

God, aka the Mayor of Janvry, says: "You have come to a village of crazy people." Crazy maybe, but charmingly crazy and courageously crazy. Janvry, like the small Gaulish village in the Asterix books and movies, is a village determined to resist the irresistible advance of a powerful but shambolic, alien culture.

For 22 years, the village has been fighting to preserve its sense of identity, and community, from the tide of concrete and suburban selfishness extending south from Paris. For Janvry, the "magic potion" which staves off submission - not to the Romans but to commuter-land nonentity - is amateur dramatics on an epic scale.

This weekend, the majority of the commune of 636 people is taking part, one way or another, in an extravagantly elaborate musical play. It has an original script and songs; a burning village; a fountain which turns to flame; flames which turn to snow; an eight-year-old girl burnt on stage but resurrected to shoot through a roof; wicked English medieval soldiers on horseback; 55 actors all with speaking or singing parts; a choir of monks and nuns; a cow which adores fireworks; and a singing donkey called Caramel.

There is also God, played in disembodied form by the Mayor, Christian Schoettl, who is scriptwriter, director and impresario-in chief.

The ensemble - a semi-jokey, semi-sententious spoof on the Joan of Arc legend - is something like Jacques Tati meets Alan Ayckbourn meets Cecil B De Mille.

Janvry is partly a farming village, partly a commuter village, at the point where the southern Paris suburbs fade into wheat fields and forests. The play's cast and production team includes retired farm-workers, house-wives, schoolchildren and the village policeman, but also executives from France's "silicon valley" near by, businessmen who commute to Paris and a celebrated French pop singer and song-writer whose godfather, and first baby-sitter, was the British movie director, Lindsay Anderson. The (stunning) special effects are by a professional cinema special-effects man who is a friend of the Mayor.

There is in France, especially in the south of France, a dying tradition of village festivals of music and drama - mini-Oberammergaus - in which most villagers participate. Janvry has no such tradition. It has invented one. In 13 out of the past 22 years, it has produced increasingly elaborate spectacles, whose fame has gradually spread throughout France.

Janvry is a beautiful village of soft, ageing stones with a château and a medieval church and a bar-restaurant. It looks as if it could be anywhere in deepest rural Frace. It is actually less than 20 miles south-west of Notre Dame cathedral in the centre of Paris.

The ghastly sprawl of strip malls, superstores, fast-food franchises, motorways and bungalows which have turned the outer belt of the eight million-strong Paris conurbation into New Jersey-sur-Seine - despite all the French talk of resisting Americanisation - ends two miles away and is advancing on both sides.

The Mayor, M. Schoettl, 49, said: "Most mayors around here want their communes to grow bigger and more important. I am happy with Janvry the way it is. We can't stop the growth all around us but we can remain apart from it. We can offer another vision of how people can live together.

"There is an Asterix side to what we are doing, struggling to preserve our identity, except that Asterix is always fighting and hurting people. We want to entertain people, to amuse people, to persuade people that, look, it doesn't all have to be anonymous housing estates and offices and shopping malls. There can be islands of beauty and community.

"What is wonderful about the play is that it brings everyone together, and not just for the two months of rehearsals. It brings together children and old people. It brings together newcomers and those whose families have lived here for generations. After being together in the play, after risking making fools of themselves, or discovering talents they did not know they had, they can't just walk past each other on the street any more."

M. Schoettl confesses that being allowed to play God comes easily to French mayors, even village mayors, but says that other villagers have agreed to indulge the "megalo" side of his character for one year only.

God was previously played by the oldest member of the cast, Ludovic Chevallier, 77, but he fell asleep in the wings on the last occasion and missed his entrance.

"You can't have God falling asleep," the Mayor said. "There is no telling what the consequences might be." Ludovic has been demoted to village blacksmith this year.

There is also a reduced role in the 2004 spectacle for another of the Janvry stalwarts, Caramel, "the municipal donkey". Partly because of the need to provide animals for the village show, the Mayor has started an extensive collection of farm and other animals, which also includes cows, sheep, ostriches and llamas.

When not needed in the show, the animals form a small menagerie and petting zoo and are lent to village residents to mow their lawns.

Caramel the donkey was reduced to a walk-on part this year because he insisted on joining in on all the songs, with limited success. But, his stable-mate Pif, the jersey cow, stands on stage throughout the 90-minute show, gazing unblinkingly while the entire stage village is set alight and looking quite pleased when fireworks are set off just in front of her stall. The idea of a village play, to celebrate village traditions before they were obliterated, was devised by M. Schoettl's mother in 1982. It was the play which led M. Schoettl to become mayor, rather than the other way around.

"The last mayor did nothing much for the play, except come and shake hands and claim the credit. Then, one year, he sent us a bill for 11 francs and 40 centimes (£1.14) for using the telephone in the town hall. Right, I said, I'm going to stand for mayor." At roughly two-yearly intervals since then, the village "spectacle", which is presented on two consecutive weekends in June in a beautiful old farm-yard bought by the commune, has grown more and more ambitious and elaborate. Each time, the theme is, nominally, taken from the history and traditions of the village.

"The problem is that the village has no history, or at least not one that anyone wrote down or can remember," said M. Schoettl. "We have had to invent one." This year, the play, L'enfant des sources (The child of the springs), is set during the Hundred Years War between England and France in the middle ages. It concerns a child with magical, or divine, powers, " Jeanne qui rit" (laughing Jeanne) who preserves the village of Janvry (obviously a derivation of "Jeanne qui rit") from the travelling England supporters who are casually laying waste to all the villages and towns of the neighbourhood.

Jeanne, played beautifully by eight-year-old Mélody Bonnafous, performs a solo song, written for the show, which begins: " Je suis une île dans la foule (I am an island in the crowd)".

The play is therefore, among other things, a parable of the modern Janvry, an "island in the crowd" of the Paris conurbation, mysteriously protected from the concrete which is casually laying waste to the rest of the neighbourhood...

Any British undertaking of this kind would be played largely for laughs. The Janvry "spectacle" - which is quite stunning in the professionalism of its staging - has moments of slapstick comedy when English soldiers, and a wicked monk, are dumped in a well. Overall, however, the show is a surprisingly serious, even deep, re-working of the Joan of Arc legend, which puts the boot not only into the thuggish medieval English but also into the hypocrisy of the medieval church.

Beforehand, as the actors and backroom staff dined together in the open air on two long wooden tables, there was gentle, mocking humour. Madeleine, a 40-something woman, who has difficulty in keeping her impressive plunging neckline under control, giggled as she allowed several actors, and actresses, to try to make her costume respectable.

The Mayor approached a 15-year-old girl and said wistfully: "Ah, I remember how pretty you were when you were young."

Just before the public entered, M. Schoettl forced all the cast to rehearse their finale. "We are going to work on the finale because, at the moment, we have a finale which is ' un bordel phénoménal" said the Mayor. (Literally this means a phenomenal brothel; figuratively it means a phenomenal mess). The finale has plenty of mess potential. It's unusual in bringing on to the sand and straw "stage" not just the actors but all the backroom staff, including the costume and scenery makers and the make-up women. The Janvry rule is that everything must be created in the village. More than a third of the villagers are involved directly on the night; more than half have some part in the making of the play.

When the action commences, all is professionalism. The show begins with a crowd scene that Cecil B De Mille might have been proud of: a breath-takingly convincing tableau of a medieval village scene, with 50 actors and half a dozen municipal animals.

When the English archers, and two knights on horseback, invade the "village", the set explodes into flames, which are turned into a shower of snow by "laughing Jeanne".

These and other effects are created by Daniel Lenoir, a professional cinema special-effects man, who has worked on many movies, including this year's runaway hit in the French cinema, Les Choristes.

He is one of three show-business professionals who have given their time to this year's show.

The choreography has been written and directed by Carine Reggiani, a successful French pop singer and song-writer - daughter of the 1950s and 1960s heart-throb singer Serge Reggiani and the actress Janine Darcey. Mme Reggiani was born in Ealing in 1951 while her parents were making a movie. She explains proudly that her godfather, and first baby-sitter, was Lindsay Anderson, who went on to direct If and other movies.

"I am not from this village but I live near by. I have known the show for years and seen it grow. When Christian asked us to add singing and dancing this year, to make it even harder for the actors, we did not hesitate."

All the music has been written by Mme Reggiani's husband, Jean-Paul Van Den Bossche, 57, a pop and jazz musician who has worked all over the world.

"For the show, I have invented a kind of medieval pop music," Jean-Paul said. "Maybe there is a future for it. Who knows? The pleasure for me and for Carine is working with such enthusiastic and talented people. It is like a holiday for us after the world of professional show-business, which is now driven only by money, money, money. But it is a working holiday. You would not believe how much work goes into a show of this kind."

On the night, all goes well. Even the vicar-general of the diocese of Evry (one step down from the bishop), who is among the 400 spectators, seems to take the anti-clericalism, or anti medieval clericalism, in his stride. He leads the loud cries of "bravo" after the finale, which fortunately do not degenerate into " bordel phénoménal" on this occasion.

M. Schoettl says that he regards the "spectacle" as an extension of politics, since politics should be about making people happy.

"My belief is that Janvry should be a place where people live, not just a place where they sleep at night ... It is easy for people to get into a way of thinking that everything should be done for them whether by politicians or by entertainers.

"I hope that the show proves that people, all kinds of people can, if they want to, do almost anything for themselves. It make us actors in our own lives," M. Schoettl says.