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 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