The 2013 production of the Chester Mystery Plays took some big risks but they have paid off with one of the most ambitious, memorable and thrilling presentations since the cycle was revived in 1951.

Staging them inside the Cathedral itself for the first time seemed, to begin with, like a cop-out. OK, it meant there was no danger of being rained off but that ever present risk during a British summer was somehow part of the experience.

As it turns out, the interior of the 900-year-old building provides a perfect and poignant backdrop for designer Judith Croft’s incredibly versatile sets, both from its status as a place of worship and its historical significance as the place where the Benedictine scholars wrote the plays in the 14th century.

Then there was the seemingly impossible task of condensing the cycle into a manageable three hour show including a 15 minute interval rather than, as has happened previously, spreading the plays over a number of nights.

In achieving this feat, writer Stephanie Dale’s multi-toned and many-layered adaptation reminds us that while the Bible is a sacred text, it also happens to tell one hell of a great story.

Another risky strategy was mixing local and modern elements into such instantly recognisable tales of 2,000-year-old acts which are said to have taken place many thousands of miles away.

 

References to the River Dee, Blacon and Broken Britain culminate in the Antichrist segment which is entirely based on a day at Chester Races where money is won and lost, outfits are outrageous, drink is plentiful and violence is always on the brink of an outbreak.

All of which seemed highly appropriate when you consider the opening night was running alongside the latest meeting at the Roodee!

But this only serves to underline the contemporary relevance of a lot of the messages contained within the Biblical tales.

Not that this production tries to shove religion down our throats - if you are a believer, it will seem faithful and true but non-believers will find the simple act of storytelling compelling and rewarding.

Credit for a lot of this is once again down to the mighty Matt Baker whose specially composed music is the vital key to making the whole production accessible to the widest possible audience.

The variety of his music borders on the miraculous - from classical to choral, from bawdy to heartbreaking, from sea shanties to hymns both ancient and new. The man continues to astound with his seemingly endless creativity.

Bringing all these elements and more together is director Peter Leslie Wild who has the unenviable task of marshalling the forces of hundreds of performers, some professional, most enthusiastic amateurs.

Rarely is the stage not teeming with life and you have to have your wits about you as an audience member to keep up with action taking place in several different areas of the setting at the same time.

And what a company of performers! Both individually and as a whole - Jeremy Grange’s hen-pecked Herod; Janice Fryett’s formidable Queen; Rob Tolefree’s earnest Noah; Cat Stobbs’ sensual Lightborne.

Nicholas Fry is at his imperious best as God while Francis Tucker is just irresistable as a wickedly attractive Lucifer whether taking centre stage with the sheer force of his personality or influencing events wordlessly at countless points throughout the action.

A word, too, about the charismatic David Edwards whose Gabriel led one to believe that he too could easily break out of local am dram in the same way that Chester TV and film actor Tom Hughes has achieved.

Adding to this is the astonishing wall of sound provided by the many voices of the choir, situated on either side of the nave, and the army of musicians who all do full justice to Baker’s beautiful compositions.

As for the highlight of the night? That has to come just before the interval. I have always regarded Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew as the greatest and most moving depiction of the Massacre of the Innocents. Not any more.

Wild’s decision to depict the slaughter bloodlessly, with the babes in arms held by the mothers unfurling to reveal the flags of today’s nations where conflict reigns and children die every day, felt like a punch in the stomach.

And when Mary’s bundle unravels into a cloak which she places around the shoulders of the adult Jesus (Jonathan Sharps), who suddenly appears on stage for the first time, the effect is simply breathtaking.

The 2013 production of the Chester Mystery Plays will be in the nave of Chester Cathedral until July 13. Tickets are available from 01244 500959 or from www.chestermysteryplays.com.