MORE than 10,000 people braved near-freezing conditions as one of the most eye-catching pieces of street theatre attempted in Britain came to Winchester.

With a cast of nearly 300, and a similar number of technicians and stewards, along with music, large screens and special effects, this was a night for the city to remember.

The Winchester Passion 2008 told the story of the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus, followed by the resurrection and ascension.

Professional actor, Israel Oyelumade, took the lead role, while the rest of the cast was drawn from dedicated amateurs based in Hampshire.

Several landmarks were used to dramatise the story including Oram's Arbour, The Great Hall, The Buttercross and the city's cathedral.

The play was performed using modern costume and dialogue, in the hope of making it accessible to all.

The show, which lasted nearly three hours, was also free, with churches across Winchester working together to raise more than £50,000 to stage the piece.

It is three decades since the city's last passion play, which was a smaller event at the cathedral.

The organisers of the 2008 version are not expecting another to be attempted in Winchester for many years, given the extensive work involved.

With hundreds of cast and crew, the army volunteered to set up a field kitchen to keep everyone working on the show fed and watered.

Bus operator, Stagecoach, ran extra evening services to cope with the demand generated by the play.

The show began at 6pm this evening (Good Friday, March 21) at Oram's Arbour, which was turned into a bustling market.

Despite early rains, the weather gods relented, and the audience only had to contend with the chilly temperatures.

The action then moved to The Great Hall where the Last Supper was staged. Pontius Pilate - played by Mike Carson from St Cross - then gave his judgement outside the Combined Courts.

Several thousand people converged on the area, which meant that many were unable to see the action, or even the large screen.

As a result, some drifted home, into nearby pubs, or down to the cathedral grounds in anticipation of the final scene.

Among those choosing the final option were Chris and Christine Jones, from Otterbourne, who came to the play with their youngster, Sam.

Said Mr Jones: "We didn't even go to Oram's Arbour. We decided to go straight to the cathedral to get a good view."

Mrs Jones added: "I think it's really good show and it is worth watching."

Back at the courts, Jesus shouldered his 'cross' - a heavy wooden pole - and headed past the Westgate, down the High Street, and to the Buttercross.

His journey ended at the cathedral, with the crucifixion scene taking place on the balcony of the Norman landmark's iconic west front.

Thousands packed the grounds, and those still outside the Great Hall were urged to stay to watch the final scene on the large screen to avoid a crush at the cathedral.

Following his crucifixion, the crowds watched the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and applauded warmly before leaving the grounds.

The play's publicity director, Mike Simpson, said they estimated between 10,000 and 12,000 people watched the spectacle.

"We were absolutely over the moon at the turnout and delighted that people seem to have enjoyed it so much."

He added that apart from a couple of technical hitches with the microphones, everything ran smoothly.

The organisers now hope that people will want to learn more about what they have seen.

"It doesn't end tonight with this play; there are follow ups if people are interested in discussing more about the passion and Christianity," said Mr Simpson.

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