This is a very different theater experience set in the towering cathedral arches, played in traverse with audiences on both sides. Director John Young’s artistic vision is bold, exciting, and inclusive, and we were spellbound by its color and energy. The professional production team is impeccable in their crafts. Matt Baker’s atmospheric, glorious soundtrack with magnificent chorale work is so befitting of the majestic environment. Jess Curtis’s design is imaginative and magical. Emma Briggs’s choreography gives the piece fluidity and variety. Lighting (Aaron J Dootsan) and sound (Kieran Lucas) enhance all the different playing areas to full effect.
But it is to the company of players I give the most praise – 200 performers, singers, and musicians drawn from all walks of life, give an outstanding performance with commitment, emotion, and talent that held us for three hours. Every single one of them was in the moment, giving their all.
We begin with The Creation and Fall, with God played by both male and female sides of the deity (Nick Fry and Becca Patch) a commanding, dynamic duo. The host of angels was powerful and impressive, and Lucifer (Sarah France) gives one of the memorable performances of the night – strong, defiant, and confident. The Garden of Eden shows off Curtis’ creativity with the Tree of life and the imposing serpent slithering its way from end to end. Then Cain (Joseph Meardon) and Abel (Noah Marescaux) give real dramatic conflict. Followed by the joyous Noah’s Flood with an imaginative use of the Ark and the children with flying birds. Noah (Rob Tovey) and Mrs. Noah (Naomi Goulding) provide some comedy with their husband and wife routine. We move on to The Nativity with a serene Mary (Florence Pitt-Knowles) and charismatic Joseph (Brandon Ward). Ward gives another of those memorable performances. Joseph, usually a played-down character for the most part, here has personality and humor as well as real empathy. The real comedy of the first half comes with The Shepherds, who interact with the audience and give us some hilarity (Rachel Quayle, Sara Cooper, Claire Smith). The final part of the first half is The Magi – in marvelous costumes -and The Innocents. The slaughter of the baby boys is one of the most harrowing and emotional moments of the production. Here, the mothers give such moving performances I felt a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.
After the spectacle and variety of Act 1, Act 2 holds a different power – the story of Christ. We glimpse him growing from boy to man and then to his temptation by the Devil. Jesus (Duncan Crompton) is not the JC of ‘Superstar’ or ‘Nazareth’ we might imagine but a physical, shaven-headed energetic man. After performing miracles, he appears high above the crowds to the invigorating ‘I am the light of the World’ which was a kind of JC Superstar moment. The turning over of the Temple was the one scene I felt needed more commotion and impact. A very different, yet very watchable, articulate Judas (Conor Medlock) consults with the Pharisees. Jennifer Jackson as Caiaphas gives a commanding performance, with gravitas and control. As we move to The Trial, Crompton’s performance finds its own in the suffering Jesus, but it is to the unlikely torturers I was totally drawn. Young chose to make four women (of mature years) dressed in red, as the citizens who whip and beat Christ, and this was a touch of genius, for those four women even terrified me. (Christine Dukes, Eileen Reisin, Tiz Corcoran, and Rosemary Barfield) The powerful Crucifixion was a memorable tableau: dramatic and full of heartfelt emotion. Mary (Melissa Roberts) showing a mother’s grief. The following scenes of Hell, the Resurrection, and Ascension were all captivating until the Final Judgment, which felt like a spiritual experience when the whole of the company were on their knees to the Holy Trinity.
I couldn’t possibly mention everyone – but everyone is worthy of appreciation for their contribution. The musicians and choir we could not see, the dozens of FOH volunteers, the organizers of this mammoth event. It truly was a remarkable experience. The Mystery Plays run until 15th July and as this only happens once every five years, it is a production not to be missed.
Visually spectacular, emotionally moving and at times breathtaking. Joyous and glorious. A phenomenal theatrical experience!
Playing until 15th July, https://chestermysteryplays.com/
Reviewer: Bev Clark
Reviewed: 5th July 2023
North West End UK Rating: