IT is 9.30pm. An expectant hush falls with the dusk on the Kynren crowd at the dress rehearsal on Saturday night, the last run-through before the 2017 season begins on July 1.

The last rays of the sun pick out the creamy tones of Auckland Castle chapel’s stones, which is high on the bank behind the stage, and they paint orangey-rosy hues onto the white clouds flying in front of the grey-blues.

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For Kynren, it is the difficult second album syndrome. After the triumph of last year, when their outdoor show was watched by more than 100,000 people, can it be bigger, better and brighter for this year?

“Last year, we did something completely crazy,” says Anne-Isabelle Daulon, the Kynren chief executive, before the show begins. “We learned to fly as we were building the aircraft when we were already up in the air.”

By 11pm, when the black night sky is spangled with thousands of glittering colours in a firework finale so vivid that it pushes you back into your seat as you try to take it all in, they are soaring high.

Ninety minutes and 2,000 years of history have flown by. Stories tumble from every era of time just as scenes are played out in every corner of the panoramic stage, all jousting for the viewers’ attention like Medieval knights on horseback.

There are new episodes, new characters and additional effects – Durham Cathedral built in 3D out of a water display is brilliantly effective, and the exploding bagpipes of the Scottish invaders made me laugh out loud. There is fire – flaming arrows shoot through the sky and threaten to set the grass alight – and there is ice: a blizzard of snow somehow drifts across the First World War trenches and settles on the lake.

And the cast is bigger – not just in terms of humans, but in numbers of animals, too. Last year there were four geese capering across the stage, this year there is a fully fledged gaggle accompanied by a couple of cows (Durham shorthorns), a donkey and a whole flock of supercharged sheep.

Together, they produce a never-ending riot of colour and drama, a wonderful historical romp which is firmly rooted in the North-East where the Bishop of Durham is in charge, where the saint is Cuthbert, where the religion is football, where the railways were born, and where coal is king.

The most joyous scene is the good time dancing at the miners’ gala with the warm colours on the banners flapping in the chill breeze; the most poignant is a mining disaster, caused by an earth-juddering explosion which leaves widows weeping as they follow the coffins across the broad stage while the miners’ hymn Gresford fills the air.

The hymn was recorded for the soundtrack by colliery bands from Ferryhill and Spennymoor at Durham cathedral, and another new specially recorded feature is the instantly recognisable Geordie accent of Kevin Whatley providing the commentary. Last year, Kynren felt a little disjointed and you needed to be a real history buff to follow every twist of the timeline, but this year the commentary pulls it all together and signals precisely what we are going to see next.

It would be wrong to present Kynren as an unalloyed triumph – a proper critic would probably say that the opening ten minutes, given the fast-paced drama of what is to come, are quite slow, and that Shakespeare needs to sharpen up his act in his scene. But only the most jaded viewer would not agree that some of the effects are stunning, even at a second or third time of watching. For example, how can William the Conqueror’s longboat rise out of the lake with dry people inside it? How can a bishop’s palace emerge out of a grassy hillock? How can a building spin round on its axis? How can sheep be trained to sprint so fast? How can so many people be so good at riding horses so quickly?

Which brings us to the 1,500 volunteers who have signed away a vast chunk of their lives. They are the real stars of the show. Many display real talent, not just for their horsemanship or even their sheepmanship, but the boys who play Arthur, the central character, show great presence and Bishop Anthony Bek, for instance, is portrayed with enormous flamboyance.

All the performers received a deserved standing ovation on Saturday night but then there are the cheery meeters-and-greeters in the car parks and all the unseen backstage hands – on the way in, one volunteer proudly pointed out to me all the wooden bin holders he had made in the last few days.

They all make Kynren the extraordinary venture that it is and for it to be based in Bishop Auckland, of all the towns in merrie olde England, makes it all the more remarkable. For the second year, it seems to have grown into its surroundings, which are almost as dramatic as the on-stage action. The countryside walk from the car parks is quite long, but it provides a rewarding view over the whole site, with the tribune tucked away by the river, and the 350-year-old chapel looking down on proceedings.

At 11pm, with the lights burning inside the chapel, Kynren comes to a tub-thumping, flag-waving finale, fireworks exploding overhead, the ground rumbling beneath the feet as the cast of thousands gathers to the stirring sounds of Land of Hope and Glory.

It is an astonishing, vibrant spectacle, one that withstands repeat viewing and will live long in the memory. The second season of Kynren truly will be a high flier.

  • Prices are unchanged from 2016, with adult tickets from £25-£55 and children from £19-£41. Opening night is next Saturday, and then it runs every Friday and Saturday throughout July and August. There’s a Sunday show on August 27, and Saturday shows until September 16. Start times come forward as the days draw in. Don’t forget to wrap up warmly. Full information at