One of the saddest scenes in the 2018 Mystery Plays is when God (William Wood) picks up and cradles a dreaded single use plastic water bottle, dismissively dumped by another member of the cast. Looking at it with weary, haunted eyes, it says so much about the mess we’ve made of the modern world, and this reflective moment is typical of the clever way the Biblical stories have been skilfully wedded to contemporary themes by writer Deborah McAndrew. Serving as a contrast to the 2013 plays which featured a memorable song about the excesses of Chester races and a shoulder padded Mrs Herod, this years production takes a more traditional approach and no modern additions have been made to the text of the play.
Initially slow, the plays take their time introducing the various characters with the opening scenes being largely dialogue free. Set against the beautiful backdrop of the Cathedral, the first thing I noticed was the quality of the lighting, which transformed the simple set from the Garden of Eden, to a flood ravaged Earth to the depths of Hell, in the space of minutes. Given that for most of the show, the midsummer sun is still shining through the stained glass windows, much praise must go to lighting designer Chris Davey. The smoke effects also add to the ambiance of the historic setting. Cast members often perform from the aisles adding a clever surround sound effect to the proceedings.
Similarly the reliable Matt Baker has delivered another high quality musical soundtrack to the plays, perfectly complimenting the action on stage. Lacking specific “song and dance numbers” the music feels like its been beamed in from another age, with the angelic singing of Sarra Cooper, being particularly soul soothing. Highlights of the first half include Becca Gates Patch as fallen angel Lucifer, bringing a seductive darkness to the role, and a simply depicted Noah’s ark scene featuring some fun props and lots of involvement from the young cast members.
As noted earlier, apart from visually ( Noah in a high vis jacket etc) there are no modern additions to the text, only modern allusions to the universal themes. The first act closes with the business suited King Herod carrying out the slaughter of the innocents, with another clever twist linking the mass murder to the losses, across the centuries, to the 100th anniversary of the ending of World War One.
The faster paced second half, covering the adult life of Jesus covers a huge amount of story in a short space of time. Nick Sherratt takes centre stage, returning to role of Jesus, previously played to perfection in the 2016 and 2017 Easter Passion plays out on the streets of Chester. Described by the writer as an “authentic Chester bloke” Nick brings his everyman persona to the most important role of the Plays, dressed in a smart casual attire, with the normal Jesus robes refreshingly absent. As events spiral towards Judgment Day, the pace is almost too fast, covering Christ’s betrayal, last supper, crucifixion and resurrection. There is still time for the arrival of the swaggering Anti Christ (Sam Baker) portrayed as a swaggering leather jacketed rock star, full of false promises and dark intentions.
Regardless of your personal beliefs or Faith , this production is a hugely effective piece of community theatre, and looking at the faces of the non professional cast, you can see how much it means to them to be performing these epic stories. Audiences familiar with the performing Chester community will enjoy spotting cast members they know, with several of the cast being Tip Top or Theatre in the Quarter regulars (Fiona MacSween, Annie May How, Chris Mapp etc. ) . A huge amount of effort has gone into staging this production, with the cast performing for free and rehearsing in their own free time. With the plays held only every 5 years, members of the audience may reflect on where they were 5 years ago and where they will be in another 5. I left the Cathedral feeling uplifted, happy and sad at the same time at a hugely moving and memorable evening. Don’t miss out!
The plays run until July 14th. Tickets: https://chestermysteryplays.com/
Thanks to all the cast and crew of the Mystery Plays/ Jo Henwood