Kynren, An Epic Tale of England made its debut last summer, with more than 100,000 people watching the outdoor spectacular on the outskirts of Bishop Auckland.
Now, organiser Eleven Arches says the show has come of age, and 2017’s performances will be bigger, better and brighter.
There’s a cast and crew of 1,500, plus horses, sheep, goats, donkeys, geese and cattle – with a bishop’s palace emerging from the hillside and a Norman longship rising from the lake.
The opening night will be on July 1, but I was fortunate to see the final dress rehearsal, telling the tale of young Arthur, the son of a local mining family.
He travels back in time to discover his roots – the name ‘Kynren’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘generation, kindred, family’ – and witnesses English history spanning 2,000 years.
Characters come to life
In just 90 minutes, we saw 29 dramatic scenes, taking us from the Romans to the Second World War, with characters coming to life, such as Boudicca, William the Conqueror, Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria.
The seven-and-half-acre set boasts a lake, across which the actors walk, while fireworks and light displays blaze in the night sky.
There are battle re-enactments, such as the Norman invasion of 1066 and Civil War clashes, and a poignant retelling of the Christmas truce in the First World War, with snowflakes drifting across the valley.
Another touching moment was the pit disaster, followed by a funeral cortege of horse-drawn coffins, and the evocation of Durham Cathedral in a water display.
But there were many lighter, laugh-out-loud moments, such as the Scottish invaders with glow-in-the-dark bagpipes, and gaggles of geese being expertly herded across the set.
Knights in shining armour
The sheer scale of the scenes was impressive – you could be watching a sword fight on one side then glance over to see knights in shining armour ready to joust.
The speed and artistry of the horse-riders were remarkable and we could feel the thudding of the hooves as they raced past us.
Running through the middle was a railway track on which we saw a life-size replica of Stephenson’s Locomotive No. 1 steaming past, a tribute to the region’s pioneering role in the Industrial Revolution.
Most of the cast are local volunteers, but it’s certainly not an amateurish production – the acoustics were top-notch, the costumes were elaborate and the choreography was slick.
And the volunteer meeters-and-greeters in the car parks and paths to the seating area were unfailingly helpful and friendly.
New creative director
This year has seen a new creative director, Steve Boyd, who has added his experience of mass choreography at 13 Olympic and Paralympic opening ceremonies.
The new dialogue also features the voice of Kevin Whately, best known for his roles in Auf Wiedersehen Pet, Inspector Morse and Lewis.
The rousing firework finale, with stirring words from Winston Churchill and patriotic music, felt like the Last Night of the Proms.
There was a standing ovation at the end – and I am sure there will be for every performance throughout the summer.
The 2017 season will feature 17 performances from July 1 to September 16, with an audience of up to 8,000 at each 90-minute show.
Prices are unchanged from 2016, with adult tickets from £25-£55 and children from £19-£41.
Wrap up warmly, as the evening air is chilly, even if the daytime sunshine is warm.