The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
Star critics pick their best of what's been on stage over the last 12 months
by Susan Darlington
In a year when Arts Council funding was slashed, threatening many companies and venues, it was a paradox that the Yorkshire theatre scene was arguably more vibrant than ever before.
The political and economic climate was addressed directly in Big Society!, the latest collaboration between Chumbawamba's Boff Whalley and Red Ladder.
The music hall comedy brought left-wing politics to a traditionally working-class form of theatre, which found its natural home in the beautifully refurbished City Varieties in Leeds.
Structured like a variety show, each vaudevillian song-and-dance routine was interspersed with backstage scenes that gave insights into the expletive-prone performers, from a character dabbling with religion as a distraction from living in the present to one pushing for universal suffrage.
Each variety act was likewise a comment on a particular aspect of society's evils. It could be argued that the targets, including the Murdoch tabloid scandal and corrupt police, were predictable but this didn't make them any less true, or funny.
Corruption was also in evidence in Northern Broadsides' adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's A Government Inspector which opened at Harrogate Theatre.
Relocated to an unspecified Pennine town, Deborah McAndrew came up with comedy gold in a smart revival that referenced numerous contemporary political scandals, including Pastygate.
The geographical transition of the farce was reinforced by name changes that conveyed the essence of the bluff Northern characters, including Tony Belcher as the tin pot council leader and Jonathan Snapper jumping at the chance to exploit corrupt officialdom when he was mistaken for a government inspector.
The move to a town in the "arse end of nowhere" was consolidated by the integral role of a brass band, played by members of the 12-strong cast, which lent certain scenes the wholesomeness of a Hovis commercial.
Proof that creativity can thrive even in times of austerity, both productions galvanised the audience through their comic excellence.
by Yvonne Lysandrou
Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis was written just before the young writer committed suicide in 1999 and, perhaps inevitably, subsequent interpretations of the play have been dogged by the life and death of the author.
Yet it stands alone as a dramatisation of a mind in breakdown, with the 4.48 of its title referring to "the happy hour when clarity visits" in the early watches of the morning.
Where previous productions have presented a violent and screaming rawness, director Samuel Miller's interpretation at the tiny Drayton Arms pub theatre was subdued, demonstrating that in London psychosis is also often a quiet internalised struggle.
It also drew out the poetic lyricism of the play and challenged the conventions of naturalistic theatre so beloved by British audiences.
But above all in this short one-hour play the actors give a searing portrayal of mental illness which affects one in four of the population and, one way or another, touches all our lives.
Jez Butterworth's new play The River at the Royal Court opened in darkness with the sound of flowing water. It was a very sensory experience, setting the scene for the play's watery theme in which an obsessed fly fisherman eulogises about the joy of standing in a river at night waiting for the trout to gather. His girlfriend is less impressed and at one level the play follows the conventional story of "man goes fishing with bored girlfriend."
Yet all is not what it seems and with its dense metaphors that are not readily interpreted The River was an experience whose poignancy lingered in the mind.
by Ciaran Bermingham
Twenty-twelve has seen a lot debuts for new writers so in some ways it is a shame that this year's stand-outs for me in London came from largely established playwrights.
Of these, Edna Walsh delivered perhaps the National Theatre's most anticipated play of the year, Misterman.
This dark piece unashamedly wore its influences on its sleeve, combining Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape with the personal politics of Brian Friel's small-town Ireland.
Carried off single-handedly by Cillian Murphy and a hodgepodge of voice-collecting contraptions, it was a funny, desolate insight into one man's detritus-strewn internal world.
Caryl Churchill's short Ding Dong The Wicked was equally experimental, though more economical, in delivering its uncomfortable message at the Royal Court.
This indictment of people's unwavering warlike mentality inevitably left some wanting more than 20 minutes - but that was the point.
There was however a glimmer of hope among all this despair in Farewell To The Theatre, Richard Nelson's extraordinarily rich play. It offers an ambivalent biographic snapshot of the innovative dramatist Harley Granville Barker during his time in Massachusetts, where he hides from both his own conflicts and those of 1916 Europe.
This was not the sort of trite theatre-about-theatre that preaches to the converted. Its message is that faith in both art and humanity is not achieved without a great deal of difficulty, contradictions and necessary struggle.
Ben Chaplin's depiction of the lost Granville Barker does not slip into easy sympathy or unrestrained celebration but shows someone who is at times as cowardly as he is visionary. An excellent performance was also delivered by Jemma Redgrave as the silently tortured landlady. Hampstead Theatre's production was easily my play of the year.
by Gordon Parsons
The year opened with Written On The Heart, David Edgar's contribution to the RSC's celebration of the quarter centenary of the King James Bible.
This exploration of the conflict between religion and politics revealed how the 17th-century power mongers manoeuvred to defuse a text which they recognised embodied a revolutionary message.
Superb performances carried the audiences through Edgar's densely textured dialogue. The time-shifting confrontation between Stephen Boxer as William Tyndale - the ground breaker in producing a Bible that even the ploughman could read - and Oliver Ford Davies's Bishop Lancelot Andrews, guilt-stricken at the compromises he must make to serve both his god and his political masters, made this a play embodying more relevant drama than many more popular shows.
There were plenty of Shakespeare productions coinciding with the Olympics shindig, but none were more powerful than Greg Doran's all-black RSC production of Julius Caesar.
The play's often given a modern political slant but the vibrantly realised African setting, with its history of struggles against ruthless dictatorship coupled with the cast's own special rhythmic speech, gave an extra poignancy to the poetry.
It was one of those rare productions, like Nicholas Hytner's National Theatre production of Timon Of Athens with Simon Russell Beale consummate in the title role, that make us see well-worked classics afresh.
The RSC also staged an enchanting seasonal show |The Mouse And His Child based on the book by Russell Hoban.
Away from the theatre establishment, Neil Gore and Fine Time Fontayne's much travelled, two-hander The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, which I saw on the Edinburgh fringe, was a brilliant tour de force. It loses none of Tressell's timely depiction of the exploitation of workers at an earlier time of crisis.
We don't need all the Newsnight gurus explaining our economic woes - The Great Money Trick sequence in this show says it all.
by Dennis Poole
Early in the year Francis Beckett's play The London Spring extrapolated our current economic miseries to a society which has chaotically imploded.
Bereft of employment and all social infrastructure London has become a predatory hunting ground where rich foreign tourists are prey to a seething mass of dispossessed locals seeking to scam, rob or attack them and worse. That forms the plotline of a piece which rather improbably has two protagonists from the opposing worlds falling for each other.
Described as a bleak comedy, the show is nevertheless short on laughter. But it does provoke some critical thinking regarding the present ills of British society - globalisation, privatisation, encroaching poverty and the disintegration of the civil and welfare state.
Much more engaging was Mark Thomas's one-man touring show Bravo Figaro! which explores the contradictory relationship between Thomas and his opera-loving father Colin, who suffers from dementia. According to Thomas he has not been a pleasant man, with attitudes informed by the darker elements of working-class conservatism.
Yet he was a frequent habitue of opera and Thomas persuaded singers from the Royal Opera to perform for his father in his Bournemouth bungalow. He movingly describes how his father emerged from his dementia and was able to engage in meaningful conversation for the first time in months.
Thomas avoided the pitfalls of mawkishness and sentimentality and presents Bravo Figaro! not as a tribute to his father but essentially as a farewell gift. In a nice final touch, he acknowledges that his father might have appreciated the irony of his politically correct son making a few bob from the show. Excellent.
Other shows which made a mark were Laura Wade's Posh, a scabrous take on an odious bunch of Bullingdon Club types at the Duke Of York's Theatre, a rigorous production of George Bernard Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma at the National and last but not least an excellent revival of the knock-out Cole Porter musical Kiss Me Kate at the Old Vic.
by Michal Boncza
A major highlight was a rare production of Oederland by Max Frisch at the Arcola Theatre in which the insularity and voluntary high regimentation of Swiss society is addressed, along with themes of identity, responsibility, morality and political engagement.
The fact that Frisch knew Bertholt Brecht must have helped.
The satire tells the story of a public prosecutor who finds himself in sympathy with a nameless lowly bank clerk who killed a fellow worker with an axe without any apparent motive.
Overnight, the prosecutor rebels against the system and, armed with an axe too - and like the mythical Count Oederland - goes on a rampage which inspires a 70,000-strong national rebellion.
The action culminates with a showdown in which the prosecutor takes power by gatecrashing the government's shindig celebrating news of his premature demise.
But, as he wakes up the next day he appears to suffer from amnesia and practically disowns the rebellion, believing it was just a dream. But was it?
Christopher Loscher artfully directed a cast of sharply drawn and mostly odious characters and Michael Bullock provided a first-class translation.
The background to Machines For Living at the Blue Elephant theatre by the Let Slip company is the Britain of the mid-1950s when architects tried to lift housing from its unsanitary 19th-century pit holes and plug the voids left by the nazi bombing of WWII. That opened the way for a Le Corbusier-inspired solution - the maligned tower block.
In the play love of concrete and for each other binds two young architects together as they design and build a high-rise housing development with all the exaltation of neophytes.
In the background the arrogant and vain Le Corbusier keeps the community safely at bay, much like today's spivs and confidence tricksters of postmodernism.
The play was written and devised by the cast with an infectious theatrical elan, where pathos is punctuated by engagingly dark humour and a magnetic musical score adds nuance throughout.
An unexpected gem of a production, right in the middle of Camberwell's housing estates.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by the Isango Ensemble at the Hackney Empire was a passionate adpatation of Robert Tressell's seminal novel to the South African context, a blast of astonishing collective performance with riveting a cappella singing, foot-stomping dance and spirited acting.
Building-site banter, jokes and renditions of revolutionary songs are interspersed with political arguments and a climactic, side-splitting comic adagio satirises the whites' belief that black men are spectacularly endowed by nature.
Class warfare made simple, appealing and empowering with a mesmerising conclusion of the company gathering from all parts of the auditorium to unite under a union banner and short-step march to the ANC anthem, ending with a collective roar of "Amandla!" (power). Spectacular.
The classic contemporary farce Can't Pay? Won't Pay! by Italian playwright Dario Fo galvanised the Queen's Theatre in Hornchurch.
This version by Joseph Farrell, transposed from '70s Milan to contemporary Romford, has a deliriously comic scenario in which a housewife is persuaded by an anarchist student to "liberate" a trolley full of food during a mass riot at a supermarket against intolerable price rises in the Essex town.
The absurdist comedy is unrelenting as the gas and electricity is cut off too and a repossession order looms.
The audience throughout were goaded, pantomime-style, to support left or right agendas as the interaction between actors and audience built.
Under Bob Carlton's inspired direction the cast excelled, with impeccable comic timing and a superb grasp of the physical demands of farce.
Bouquets to the Queen's for getting the timing of this production spot on.
by Will Stone
London Road at the National Theatre is based on verbatim interviews in that neighbourhood of Ipswich at the time of serial killer Steve Wright's prostitute murders.
Set to a tuneful musical score it may sound destined for failure but this production, using the interviews of Alecky Blythe and the music of Adam Cork, is so faultless that it should serve as the blueprint for hopefully many more musicals of this style. It's masterful in that it's not only one for fans of musicals but surely one for those who loathe them too.
A triumph of a debut play came from poet, rapper and Sound Of Rum band member Kate Tempest. Wasted at the Roundhouse was a highly innovative production using spoken-word and rap techniques to tell a darkly humorous tale of three 20-somethings who are just starting to realise that growing up isn't all it's cut out to be.
Littered with hilarious quips about modern life and driven forward by hugely confident performances by Ashley George, Cary Crankson and Lizzy Watts, one can't wait for what Tempest will deliver next.
Sunset Baby at The Gate in Notting Hill was the final production in the theatre's Resist! season that focuses on rebels and revolutionaries. Penned by US playwright Dominique Morisseau the story tells how a famous former black revolutionary in his '50s is not so famous in the eyes of his young daughter.
It's an insightful exploration of success in a career and success at home and how one is not necessarily inclusive of the other.
by Peter Lindley
DV8's Can We Talk About This was one of the most challenging dance performances, raising questions about what can and cannot be said about Islam.
Lloyd Newson's brand of physical theatre made the stage a slaughterhouse of pain and suffering where recorded voices of women's rights campaigners, writers, artists and academics gave empirical gravity and controversy to the dance.
The Hofesh Shechter company moved the year on with a sizzling rerun of the profound Political Mother, an ensemble dance work about political control and the movement of people.
Its representation of totalitarianism included a terrifyingly heavy rock band and this was definitely the loudest dance performance of the year and just about the most exciting too.
As the Olympic summer came so did World Cities, an experimental dance project by Pina Bausch's Tanztheater Wuppertal. Fifty truckloads of sets and costume, piles of sand, a mountain of flowers and a cast of 100 made this the absolute must-see event of the year.
In the autumn The Rodin Project was an understated delight and with it came the year's most inspired and effective casting. The "performer discovery of the year" award must go to choreographer Russell Malliphant for introducing Daniel Mbi, a newcomer to contemporary dance.
He offered the choreographer the chance to add hybrid street techniques to the continuously transformational development of modern dance. Briliant.
by Paul Foley
The headlines are stark. The city council announces a further 900 job losses. Bolton's NHS Foundation Trust to sack 500. Austerity is biting and every walk of life is threatened.
But despite the Sword of Damocles hanging over our theatres, 2012 has been a rich and rewarding year for theatre in the north west and nowhere more so than at Manchester's Royal Exchange, which kicked off a great year with Jim Cartwright's Two, a wrily comic double-hander starring Justin Moorhouse and Victoria Elliott.
The season continued with a fantastic revival of August Strindberg's Miss Julie starring the magnificent Maxine Peake.
The summer brought a wonderfully upbeat reworking of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, full of fizz and pizzaz.
As the sun faded - or did I miss the sun bit - autumn saw another great revival. Imogen Stubbs gave us a captivating performance in an astonishing production of Tennessee Williams's Orpheus Descending.
Manchester's other great theatre The Library, still orphaned since the closure of its home in 2011, produced its second site-specific production. Set on the fifth floor of a city office block, Jackie Kay's super, moving and life-affirming Manchester Lines was a highlight of the summer.
Both theatres brought the year to a close with fantastic Christmas shows.
The Royal Exchange has the wonderfully dark and creepy Rats Tales, written by poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, while the Library has a beautiful version of Arabian Nights by Dominic Cooke.
But it is not just Manchester which is determined to bring great theatre to the people. A few miles down the road Bolton's Octagon keeps producing excellent work.
A real highlight this year was Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good directed by the great Max Stafford-Clark, artistic director of Out Of Joint.
What will 2013 bring?
One thing is for sure - if the government is allowed to kill off local theatre we will all be the worse for it.
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