Kevin Berry enjoys the latest caper at Parc Asterix - a theme park with such style that even adults will moan at closing time
The people at Parc Asterix have flung down the gauntlet in impressive style. They could be excused for casting a glance at Disneyland Paris and shouting, "Et maintenant?" or however the French choose to translate, "Follow that!"
Almost 75 million francs, and a lot of thought, has been put into a spectacular new high-tech entertainment that combines many elements of theatre, circus and cinema with astonishing special effects. Unveiled last summer, Main Basse sur la Jaconde is on its own worth the trip to Parc Asterix - it is so good that the temptation to see it again is rarely resisted. My French friend's comment, "It's good, you will like it" is a classic understatement.
Main Basse sur la Jaconde is a comedy adventure played out in what is a purpose-built stadium. It looks like a set for a Steven Spielberg film - a vast dockside area with huge buildings, railway freight wagons and what seems to be a good half of a full-sized freighter in its own tank of water. Spectators sit on a covered bank of seats with a capacity of about 2,200 and empty spaces are rare.
The story is a 1920s comic-book adventure brought to life and the style and spirit are maintained throughout. The Mona Lisa is being transported to New York for a display and various cunning thieves, including an airborne masked girl, try to steal it.
The police are wonderfully incompetent, never better than in one scene when they are handing each other bombs which are about to explode. Rescue comes in the shape of Marcel a "common-man" hero but not before some exciting, furiously-paced chases, car crashes, motorcycle stunts, umpteen glorious explosions, beautifully choreographed fights, spectacular falls and the ship finally sinking in flames. As a climax, the set seems to be blown up and torched, with stunning sound effects. It looks to have been destroyed but within an hour all has been restored to what it was and everyone and everything is ready for the next show.
It is exhilarating, exciting entertainment, a colourful slice of French popular culture.
Patrick Roger, the parc's artistic director, has researched French theatre, comedy and film styles to create the show. The gendarmes might look like the Keystone Cops, but they act and move in a style used in French silent films that predate them. The madcap slapstick owes a lot to French music hall traditions and the choreography is brilliant, timed to seamless perfection.
The actors are the resident stunt crew at Parc Asterix where there is a thriving school for potential stunt performers. They often do five or six shows each day, with a show lasting about 50 minutes and it's free. All you have to do is check the show times when you arrive at the parc and be in the queue 20 minutes before it starts.
The parc has other actorstunt performers who create a show in a Roman amphitheatre and act out an episode from The Three Musketeers on rooftops and battlements. Both shows emphasise physical skills as well as slapstick Gallic humour. GCSE students should be able to understand any dialogue, and pupils with only a modicum of French will be able to work out what is happening. Main Basse sur la Jaconde does not carry much dialogue, except for brief snatches of commentary and a song from the wonderful Marcel.
The delight of Parc Asterix is that there are very few English visitors. There might be a handful of Dutch families and one or two from Germany but the overwhelming number of visitors are French families and school groups. Most signs and instructions are in French except for signs reminding males to keep their shirts on during hot weather.
It is a theme park with style and taste, even cynical adults have been known to moan at closing time.
Details: Parc Asterix has its own motorway exit on the A1, 35km north of Paris. It is open from April to September inclusive from 10am to 6pm with a few closed days. Tel: 00 33 1 60 77 04 04