'The story of our fight': Port Talbot steel workers star in play about shutdown
The last acting part for Sam Coombes, a steelworker, was 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 plant in south 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 has been given unpaid leave to take part in the (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 an estimated 18,000 jobs, .
The people of Port Talbot did not roll over. A campaign called Save Our Steel was launched and after months of protests and talks , though at the cost of cuts to pension benefits.
Journalists, industry analysts and academics continue to pore over the saga and its ramifications 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 the NTW and the theatre company spent months interviewing Port Talbot people about the steel crisis and turned their stories into an energetic, vibrant, sometimes loud, punky and sweary production.
“They have 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 stories of working-class heroes were 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 Coombes is part of the professional cast, the show also features members of the community appearing as themselves, among them Sian James, a college worker and the 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. There is still uncertainty – what happens in five years, what will happen if sell. But whatever happens next, the community will be ready to fight.”
Four teenagers also take starring roles. Dylan John, 15, said the last 18 months in the town 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 would rather be an actor. “But it is crucial for the future of our town.”
, a co-director of the play, said Common Wealth had been thinking about creating a piece about 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 is an attempt to begin to redress the balance.
Up the road from the Byass Works, at the St Paul’s community centre, regulars have been fascinated to watch rehearsals in the function room.
The centre’s administrator, Carol Powrie, said there was much more music and movement than she expected. “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. I don’t think people are confident.”
Canon Nigel Cahill, rector of the Aberavon parish in Port Talbot, said he hoped We’re Still Here would boost the area in the same way as the , in which the Hollywood actor Michael Sheen, who grew up in Port Talbot, acted alongside 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, it is true that there are those in the area who do not share the optimism and idealism of those directly involved. At the Aberafan shopping centre by a raised section of the M4, many were unaware of the production and gloomy for the long-term 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.
“I think 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 forever for what they feel is right.”
- runs from 15-30 September at the Byass Works, Port Talbot.