Danc­ing steel­work­ers tell Port Tal­bot’s story of the fight to keep a town alive

Last year the plant was threat­ened with clo­sure. So what hap­pened next?

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - Steven Morris

The last act­ing Sam Coombes, a steel­worker, did was as Robin Hood in the an­nual rugby club pan­tomime.

Over the next two weeks he has a rather weight­ier role in a pro­fes­sional pro­duc­tion telling the story of how he and his com­rades at the Port Tal­bot steel plant suc­cess­fully bat­tled a clo­sure that threat­ened their liveli­hoods, their com­mu­nity and a whole way of life.

“It’s a bur­den but a huge priv­i­lege,” said Coombes, who took un­paid leave to take part in the Na­tional The­atre Wales (NTW) play, We’re Still Here. “This is a chance to tell the story from our point of view. It’s the story of our fight. It’s not gloom and doom. There’s a long way to go, but I do feel the fight is be­ing won.”

At the start of last year there was a dis­tinct pos­si­bil­ity that the Tata steel­works, which sup­ports some 18,000 jobs in south Wales, would close.

The peo­ple of Port Tal­bot did not roll over. A cam­paign called Save Our Steel was launched and fol­low­ing months of protests and talks a deal was reached that kept the plant alive, though at the cost of cuts to pen­sion ben­e­fits.

Jour­nal­ists and aca­demics are still por­ing over the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the saga but this pro­duc­tion, staged in a dis­used dock­side fac­tory, the Byass Works, is meant to tell the story through the voices of those di­rectly in­volved.

Writ­ers and re­searchers from NTW and the the­atre com­pany Com­mon Wealth spent months in­ter­view­ing Port Tal­bot peo­ple about the steel cri­sis and have turned their sto­ries into an en­er­getic, vi­brant, some­times loud, punky and sweary pro­duc­tion.

“They’ve got the di­a­logue and ban­ter bang on. It’s just like be­ing in work,” said Coombes, a 29-year-old met­al­lur­gist, who fol­lowed his fa­ther and grand­fa­ther into the steel­works and will be back there at the start of Oc­to­ber “un­less Steven Spiel­berg comes call­ing”.

Coombes said the story of work­ing­class he­roes was not told of­ten enough. “What hap­pened last year is that we all got to­gether and said: ‘No, we’re fight­ing for what is ours. Not just the steel­works but the whole com­mu­nity.’”

While he is part of the pro­fes­sional cast, the show also fea­tures mem­bers of the public ap­pear­ing as them­selves, among them Siân James, a col­lege worker and wife of Chris James, a steel­worker, union rep and Labour coun­cil­lor. She said the ti­tle of the piece summed up the mood of the town. “The com­mu­nity came to­gether and is still to­gether,” she said. “There is still un­cer­tainty – what hap­pens in five years, what will hap­pen if Tata sell. But what­ever hap­pens next, the com­mu­nity will be ready to fight.”

Four teenagers also star. Dy­lan John, 15, said the last 18 months had been “in­tense”. “The cri­sis made us pic­ture a fu­ture without the steel­works. That was fright­en­ing,” he said. Dy­lan doesn’t see him­self tak­ing a job at the works – he’d rather be an ac­tor. “But it is cru­cial for the fu­ture of our town.”

Evie Man­ning, co-di­rec­tor of the play, said Com­mon Wealth had been think­ing about cre­at­ing a piece on work­ing-class lead­ers when the Port Tal­bot cri­sis blew up. “Me­dia, pol­i­tics and art are all be­ing colonised by the mid­dle and up­per classes. It feels like the work­ing class is be­ing rep­re­sented ter­ri­bly,” she said. We’re Still Here tries to re­dress this.

At the St Paul’s com­mu­nity cen­tre, up the road from the Byass Works, regulars have been fas­ci­nated to watch re­hearsals in the hall. The cen­tre’s man­ager, Carol Powrie, was sur­prised to see so much mu­sic and move­ment. “You don’t ex­pect steel­work­ers danc­ing; that was a lot of fun. It’s a pow­er­ful story but I think peo­ple are still wor­ried, still wait­ing for bad news.”

Canon Nigel Cahill, rec­tor of Port Tal­bot’s Aber­avon par­ish, said he hoped We’re Still Here would boost the area in the same way as NTW’s lauded pro­duc­tion of The Pas­sion, in which the Hol­ly­wood ac­tor Michael Sheen acted with lo­cal am­a­teurs, did six years ago.

“Af­ter the last pro­duc­tion here in 2011 there was a marked im­prove­ment in peo­ple’s cheer­ful­ness, hope­ful­ness and gen­eral at­ti­tude. Partly, I think it was con­fi­dence that peo­ple were tak­ing an in­ter­est in their town.”

Of course, there are many in the area who do not share the op­ti­mism and ide­al­ism of those di­rectly in­volved.

At the Aber­afan shopping cen­tre by the M4 many were un­aware of the pro­duc­tion and gloomy about the longterm prospects for Port Tal­bot.

Michael Cosker, who used to be a crane driver at the plant and now runs the Rolls Choice cafe, said he felt the work­ers sac­ri­ficed too much in the pen­sion deal that kept the plant alive.

“The men have given away more than they should have done,” he said. “Pen­sions like that are hard to come by. I un­der­stand it but it’s a large price to pay.

“The town is sur­viv­ing. Busi­ness is not too bad. The thing about Port Tal­bot is that they are fight­ers. They will fight for ever for what they feel is right.”

‘There’s a long way to go but I do feel that the fight is be­ing won’

We’re Still Here is at the Byass Works, Port Tal­bot, from 15-30 Septem­ber. na­tion­althe­atre­wales.org/were-still-here

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