Like joggers before the Great North Run, strippers before Spencer Tunick and maybe First World War conscripts on the eve of the Somme, there was a palpable sense of anticipation and of being “all in this together” as we gathered for the first night of Durham Mysteries 2010 – and we were just the audience!
There were, of course, those among us planning to duck out when the going got tough – which is to say, when the action moved outside. But everyone in it for the long haul had that look about them.
You could see people doing those mental checks: programme, tickets (separate ones for Gala Theatre, Cathedral and outdoors at The Sands), flask, coat, hat, scarf – the last three, like Vaseline on the annual run to South Shields, proving particularly necessary. Even maps were on offer.
Durham Mysteries 2010 has been a major undertaking, involving hundreds of performers, many different schools and community groups, professional writers and theatre practitioners, and, I dare say, umpteen behind-the-scenes fixits in many different fields.
The brilliant result is 10 new plays – and an animated film – being performed over five hours on three evenings.
Kicking things off at 5.30pm in the padded comfort of the Gala was The Fall of Lucifer, enacted in the style of a celestial Britain’s Got Talent show.
Written by Gavin Williams and performed by students of Gilesgate Sixth Form College, it had the angels – in God’s absence – seeing who was best, aided by cherubic Ant and Dec-alikes.
Smug Lucifer always wins. But not this time. He was chucked off the show, just as the Bible records. Sort of.
We then trooped up to Durham Cathedral where a more reverent atmosphere awaited us. The Fall of Creation had a strong musical content and featured schoolchildren from Chester-le-Street, various choirs and an instrumental ensemble.
We joined in the only proper prayer of the night before seeing Adam and Eve tempted in the Garden of Eden by an incredible silver serpent which moved sinuously on 60 young feet.
Then it was down to The Sands where a huge, festival-style stage has been erected on the grass.
Here the remaining eight little plays took us through famous Biblical stories, much as happened in medieval times but without the modern technology and portable loos.
Under a leaden sky, poet Ian McMillan’s God’s Day Off brought together a mature group of “like-minded individuals” to imagine the Almighty’s dismay at the human mayhem besmirching his creation.
Fallen Adam and Eve’s uncouth offspring yah-booed his efforts to get them speaking in orderly rhyme.
God wasn’t always a him. In Noah & The Fludd by David Almond, it’s an ample blonde lady in charge.
“They don’t even believe in you,” hollers a cherub, hovering over the doomed human masses. “It’s true, Lord, they divvent,” chimes another.
Noah’s given the task of building a “nark” to fill with animals. The giraffe causes furrowed brows until a pair are located “doon in Esh Winning”.
Armies of energetic youngsters presented a hip-hop Cain & Abel, a monochrome Abraham & Isaac, The Nativity set in a jumping Jude’s Bar and focusing on the seeming pointlessness of Joseph, a visually stunning Crucifixion and, to round things off, The Harrowing of Hell with performing arts students of New College Durham urging us to sing along – which we would have done if we hadn’t been rigid with cold.
In this case, Hell was indeed threatening to freeze over.
Amid all the youthful song and dance, Lazarus was raised from the dead in Judy Upton’s play which involved the present day emergency services.
The appearance of an ambulance, I admit, fooled me into thinking someone really had succumbed to the cold. But evidently this audience was made of sterner stuff.
A mention finally for the animated film Jonah And The Whales in which the residents of HMP Frankland and Low Newton had imagined Sir Bobby Robson as God and Sunderland fans realising the error of their ways.
This was probably the riskiest contribution but it passed with laughter and no black eyes.
Durham Mysteries 2010 is on again tonight. Tickets are on sale at The Gala Theatre. Tel. 0191 332 4041. And if you’re going, remember to wrap up warm. Very warm.