As 2017 draws to a close we look back at the plays, gigs, exhibitions and comedy shows that wowed our team of reviewers over the past 12 months

The music that moved us

THE end of the year saw two huge homecoming gigs for Sussex-based acts. Soul singer Rag ’n’ Bone Man and hard rockers Royal Blood – based in Uckfield and Brighton respectively – performed to sell-out crowds at the Brighton Centre.

It was a momentous year for Rag ’n’ Bone Man, right, real name Rory Graham, who scored a number one album and had a baby with his long-term girlfriend. We were at Brighton Centre to see the audience “welcome him home with open arms” before the singer delivered a “mesmerising” set full of power, heart, and of course his distinctive vocal.

Our reviewer wrote that it “was the spine tingling, stripped-back version of Skin, arguably his best song, that got the biggest reaction of the night with cheers and rapturous applause”. Just a day later, Royal Blood – singer and bassist Mike Kerr and drummer Ben Thatcher – confirmed their status as a “fully-formed arena beat of a band” as we wrote.

The duo have achieved two number one records and they celebrated in style at Brighton Centre, with Kerr even smashing a gong with a flaming mallet at one point. Now that’s rock and roll.

Autumn was a busy time for gigs in Brighton. Another highlight was Blondie – whose iconic singer Debbie Harry voiced her support for the Rampion wind farm during a sterling set. Moving away from retro bands, man-of-the-moment Father John Misty showcased his witty lyrics, baritone voice and faux-rock star posturing as he conquered the Brighton Dome. Our reviewer said the ex-Fleet Foxes man was at his “deep and dark, funny and flippant” best.

Weeks earlier, American slacker Mac Demarco had peddled his breezy, melodic pop at the same venue. Dizzee Rascal demonstrated the breadth of his back catalogue – from scatter-gun hip-hop to pop bangers – while drum and bass icon Goldie turned in a hyperactive performance oozing with class.

One of the most eagerly anticipated concerts of the year was Gorillaz, Damon Albarn’s semifictional crew of innovative noisemakers. Our reviewer delivered an overwhelmingly positive verdict of their show, drawing parallels to Pink Floyd and The Clash.

Acoustic singer-songwriter Julie Byrne’s Not Even Happiness was one of our favourite albums of 2017, and her gig at St Mary’s Church was a masterclass in subtle emotion. Another act who recieved a lot of attention this year were Wolf Alice the British indie group fronted by charismatic singer Ellie Roswell. Their Brighton show was by turns ferocious and tender. Honourable mentions also to US post-punk group Protomartyr, Australian lounge lizard Alex Cameron and raging rockers Algiers.

Last but by absolutely no means least, Pet Shop Boys proved themselves perfect Pride headliners with a hit-heavy set that was as life-affirming as the festival itself. When a crowd of all ages leave the show singing the words to one of your songs – in this case PSB’s Go West – you know it’s been a barnstorming gig.

The theatre that thrilled us

THE old ones are the best, as the saying goes. But perhaps in theatre this is only a half-truth. While everybody loves watching classic stories represented on stage, it’s also important that directors inject a new spirit into their productions. One show that absolutely delivered that was the National Theatre’s version of Jane Eyre, which played at Theatre Royal Brighton in July.

Innovative features were at the heart of this adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s novel; from the appearance of a live band to the skeletal, three-deck framework of a set, which enabled delightful choreography. Most impressive of all, though, was the haunting sight of Melanie Marshall’s Bertha.

A permanent fixture on the stage, she frequently chimed in with enchanting, foreboding songs to heighten the already tense atmosphere. A brilliant twist on what is, let’s be honest, an overdone story.

As ever, the Theatre Royal hosted a number of memorable shows. Among those that immediately come to mind are The Crucible, the Arthur Miller play about puritanism and persecution, All or Nothing, the rocking production written by EastEnders actor Carol Harrison and based on the story of The Small Faces, and – just for the sheer feelgood factor – Grease, which is currently running.

Chichester Festival Theatre enhanced its already sterling reputation with an extraordinary season. While Ian McKellen’s surprisingly subtle performance as King Lear in November won plaudits from national newspapers, it was an altogether less anticipated show that was the true gem of the season.

Caroline, or Change, written by Tony Kushner, was an electric portrayal of the civil rights movement in America, crowned by a tour-de-force showing from Sharon D Clarke, pictured. It brought the theatre audience to its feet and, happily, will be staged on the West End next year.

There were inventive family productions at CFT this year too, from Running Wild, which featured a giant model elephant called Oona to Beauty and the Beast, which was literally fit for a Queen (Her Majesty had first viewing of it when she visited Chichester). Both shows received five stars from our reviewers.

Brighton Open Air Theatre has filled a nice in the city since its opening, and this summer it proved again why there is no other venue like it. Perhaps the standout show from its 2017 season was Identity Theatre’s powerful retelling of Blue Remembered Hills. It’s no easy feat for adult actors to play children – in all their fickleness and expressiveness – but the cast pulled it off with aplomb.

And who can forget one of the most eagerly anticipated shows of the year – Mamma Mia, It has become a theatrical behemoth in the last decade, with different productions taking place across the world, and in August it charmed audiences – Abba fans and neutrals – in its long run at Brighton Centre. How can you resist it?

The exhibitions that got us excited

WE ALL know how much inspiration legendary artists have taken from Sussex – but this year that was made even clearer with some awe-inspiring exhibitions.

January saw an extensive display of J M W Turner’s landscape oil paintings at Petworth. The artist was invited to stay at the country house by the Third Earl of Egremont, George Wyndham. The exhibition – Turner and the Age of British Watercolour – showed Sussex at its ravishing best, with the artist bringing out the beauty of landmarks from Chichester Canal to Brighton Beach.

When people talk about Turner, they often mention John Constable in the same breadth – and, lo and behold, a Constable exhibition opened in Brighton just months after the Turner show.

There was an interesting back story behind the exhibition, entitled Constable and Brighton. Its curator, Peter Harrap – himself an artist – found out one day that he was living in the same house as Constable, in Sillwood Road. After years of research and sourcing Constable’s work, Harrap opened the exhibition to much acclaim.

The show was successful in charting the artist’s life in Brighton, including the walks he used to take from Brighton seafront to Devil’s Dyke, which greatly influenced his art. It also demonstrated the key differences between his and Turner’s work, evidenced in his heavily stylised seascapes – one of which is pictured right. Both exhibitions heightened one’s sense of pride in Sussex as well as reaffirming the two artists’ rightful place in British art history.

Another ground-breaking artist with ties to Sussex is Eric Ravilious, who was represented in astonishing breadth in an exhibition at the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne – Ravilious and Co: The Pattern of Friendship.

Ravilious grew up in Eastbourne and the display delved into his life and social circle as well as his instantly recognisable work. Highlights from the show included Ravilious’s wonderfully atmospheric depictions of Beachy Head and Cuckmere Valley.

Aside from shining a light on the artist’s unique cross-hatching style and vibrant sense of colour, the exhibition helped place Ravilious in a particular social context – and it was all the better for that.

Another display at Towner which deserves a shout-out is A Certain Kind of Light. Its highlight was Katie Paterson’s mirror ball (pictured on front cover of The Guide), in which 10,000 miniscule images of a solar eclipse were projected from the metallic sphere around the room. Mesmerising.

Back in Brighton, Laura Ford’s display A King’s Appetite, which focused on the often excessive life of the Prince Regent, stood out – and not just because of her 12-foot model giraffe, a replica of the one the prince kept in the Royal Pavilion grounds.

More recently, Brighton Museum did well to give exposure to a relatively obscure but important figure in British art. Gluck, the gender fluid trailblazer, is at the centre of a show called Gluck: Art and Identity that is currently running. Born Hannah Gluckstein, the artist was so single-minded that she disowned her family name in pursuit of an authentic creative life. The display shows the fascinating results of this quest.

The comedy that made us chortle

THERE were two topics on the minds of the comics that visited Brighton this year; Brexit and Trump.

Bridget Christie’s searing takedown of the former – a show she called Because You Demanded It – was rapturously received on International Women’s Day.

Meanwhile, her husband Stewart Lee showed why he has achieved such a cult status on the comedy scene with a three-day residency at Brighton Dome, during which his irreverent, often surreal and dark sense of humour was abundantly evident.

In the context of Brexit, it was interesting to hear the views of German comedian and Radio 4 favourite Henning Wehn. While he was insightful on the subject at his show at the Dome, it was his wry analysis of the British way of life that proved most hilarious.

“In Germany we tend to have a laugh after the work is done, not during,” was a line that prompted howls of self-depreciative laughter. Miles Jupp is another funny man well known for his radio work – as well as television appearances – and his brand of incredulous, modern-life-is-rubbish comedy went down a storm in his February appearance in Brighton.

In his curmudgeonly, old manness Jupp shares a stage personality with Jon Richardson, whose candid portrayals of family life won him a lot of friends here. Omid Djalili won the rare honour of receiving not one but two five-star reviews from The Argus, for his shows at Theatre Royal Brighton and The Hawth in Crawley.

The comedian and actor prides himself on keeping his stand-up routines topical, joking that the audience wouldn’t understand certain jokes until they got home and turned on the news. In Sussex, he tackled political issues with characteristic fervour, as well as summing up generational divides with flawless narration, and, more surprisingly, awarding the crowd with bursts of dancing.

American comic Katherine Ryan – most recently seen on Channel 4’s Big Fat Quiz of the Year – had Trump in her sights, pointing out the flaws of her president’s homeland with uproarious results. She also showed commendable improvisation and no small amount of courage to take on a heckler who called out that Ryan, pictured, was not as attractive as she appeared on TV.

When you have a wit as sharp as Ryan’s, any kind of personal heckling is an unwise move – as the out-of-order audience member now knows. The unstoppable Ken Dodd surely warrants praise for providing yet another of his marathon five-hour routines, as does Count Arthur Strong, the creation of Steve Delaney, who had them rolling in the aisles with his gleefully chaotic show The Sound of Mucus.

Honourable mentions too for two Brighton institutions. The Treason Show proved they can roll with the punches by tackling Trump, Corbyn, May and more in their fast-paced satire productions. Meanwhile Stand Up and Slam – a madcap combination of the two performance types – has become a much-loved monthly event at Komedia.

In a year where it’s often been difficult to find much to chuckle about, these comics reminded us that laughter is often the best medicine – even if it’s just for an hour or two.

Festival fever

MUSICIAN and writer Kate Tempest took up her role as guest director of Brighton Festival with some rousing words.

“The arts should be social, not elitist. They should be part of our everyday life.” And Tempest and the festival team largely lived up to this mission statement with an edition of the event that reached more areas of the city than ever.

Special “hubs” were set up in East Brighton and Whitehawk, with Tempest herself performing at both during the course of the three-week programme. In each of her six performances at the festival, Tempest’s lightningquick rapping, politically-aware lyrics and dynamic stage persona ensured she went down a storm with a Brighton audience who welcomed her with open arms.

Aside from her electrifying shows, highlights of Brighton Festival included: outdoor installation For the Birds, an extraordinary, illuminated night-time walk through the woods with various art and sound pieces based on the Avian world; The Gabriels, a six-hour theatre epic which followed an average American family through the year of the US election; Tristam and Yseult, a high-octane show based on a Cornish folk tale that included singing, dancing and, er, Daft Punk’s Get Lucky; and an emotional comeback performance from Sussex-based folk icon Shirley Collins, complete with dance routines from the Sussex Morris Men.

Brighton Fringe also enjoyed a strong year, and indeed its biggest on record; more than 1,000 shows were staged across the city. The Argus Angel award was presented to Urinetown: The Musical, which we called a “clever, inventive production” that sent up privatisation and musical theatre itself.

The festival’s Dutch season was also a success, with a particular stand out coming in the form of Watching, Ceci N’est Pas De Deux, a remarkable one-woman show that demonstrated the power of puppetry.