Who’d have thought a load of old Bible stories could be such fun? 

This year’s Chester Mystery Plays are a revelation. I’d always thought Mystery Plays were a kind of Sunday school outing, a bit dull and worthy. Not a bit of it. This iteration of the Chester cycle is exciting, entertaining and, most surprisingly for me, emotionally engaging.

The Chester cycle, banned in 1575 and revived in 1951 for the Festival of Britain, has since been produced every five years and takes three days to perform. This year’s director, John Young, was asked to produce a version that could be done in one evening. Starting with the 1987 script (based on the original texts), he has produced a collection of 17 plays which last three hours, including an interval, and work very well.

Chester Mystery Plays 2023. Pamela Raith Photography.

We begin with God, here played as a magisterial double act by Nick Fry and Becca Pinch, creating the heavens and the angels, with Lucifer and Lightborn at their head. But Lucifer, a proud and fiery Sarah France, has delusions of grandeur and is cast into Hell. Play Two is Adam and Eve. It could not be clearer. Eve knows she mustn’t eat the apple, but hey, that’s a very big snake. And down we all go. Play Three is Cain and Abel. Envious of God accepting Abel’s sacrifice but refusing his own, Cain kills his brother. The fight, directed by Kaitlin Howard, is terrific.

Meanwhile, Play Four centres on Noah’s Flood, with Rob Tovey giving us a man entirely at God’s service, and Naomi Goulding as Mrs Noah, not at all on board with any of it. The Ark is done rather nicely, but, as with the creation, I could have done with a few more animals. Perhaps there were design budget issues? Then onto Play Five, The Nativity, with Joseph played by Brandon Ward as a lovely, caring hippy, and Mary as a demure and innocent Florence Pitt-Knowles. It has Joseph’s doubts – ‘I’ve been away for three months and she’s pregnant?’, and a curious reference to Caesar Augustus accepting that Jesus is Lord. Otherwise the politics are as we expect. The three Kings, gorgeously attired, skedaddle after being told by the angel not to report back to Herod. 

But just before the Kings are the shepherds. Oh, the shepherds. It’s worth going to see this just for the shepherds. Rachel Quayle, Sara Cooper and Claire Smith are hilarious.

The Massacre of the Innocents comprises Play Seven, which is suitably harrowing, and then there’s the interval. Act two is the life of Christ, played utterly believably by Duncan Crompton and probably the best Christ I have ever seen. The production brings the New Testament vividly to life, and the crucifixion, with the two thieves, Joseph Meardon and Gregory Black, hanging in the background is particularly well done.

Chester Mystery Plays 2023. Pamela Raith Photography.

It all happens in the traverse, with the audience in banks of seats on either side of the nave, a wide stage at the West Door end and the Rood Screen at the other. Behind the screen is the orchestra and the choir in the choir stalls and, although we can’t see them, they make a wonderful sound. Composer and musical director Matt Baker has a great deal to be proud of.

The production is underpinned by an atmospheric and sometimes extremely loud soundscape designed by Kieran Lucas, who deftly mixes it into the music, and a fine lighting plot by designer Aaron Dootson, who has cleverly overcome the considerable difficulties of the space and the action.

There are other professionals behind the scenes, but the real heroes are the cast, choir and musicians who are all amateurs. They are delivering a fine production at the highest professional standard. And it’s great fun. You have until July 15. 

By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor

Photos by Pamela Raith Photography

golden-star golden-star golden-star golden-star


Chester Mystery Plays 2023. Pamela Raith Photography.

Chester Mystery Plays are at Chester Cathedral until July 15, 2023. For more information, click here.