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We’re Still Here review at Byass Works, Port Talbot – ‘powerfully moving’

Cast of We're Still Here. Photo: Dimitris Legakis
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There’s an irresistible theatrical pull to the ongoing steelworks crisis in Welsh industrial town Port Talbot – a David and Goliath tale of workers versus global capitalism and a venal Tory government. A campaign triggered by the threat of the Tata Steel-owned Port Talbot Steelworks’ closure last year has made national headlines.

Returning to Port Talbot since taking a modernised re-telling of The Passion, led by Michael Sheen through its streets in 2011, National Theatre Wales have teamed up with site-specific company Common Wealth. Set in the disused Byass Works, We’re Still Here explores the indivisible relationship between industry and community.

Rachel Trezise’s script draws heavily on local research. It provides a kaleidoscopic look at the impact of redundancies on families consisting of generations of steelworkers, at the growing fury and sense of helplessness in the face of decisions made overseas. The play charts a post-1980s crisis of faith in unions.

Co-directors Evie Manning and Rhiannon White have taken scenes intercutting life at the Port Talbot plant with the slow death of British heavy industry and created something loud, punky and poetic. Getting promenade theatre right for large audiences is tricky, but this production avoids too much shuffling through a dynamic use of the warehouse’s cavernous dimensions and by keeping our eye-line constantly shifting.

Russell Henry’s set design blurs with installation art. Trees and metal piping emerging side by side from piles of gravel root industry deeply in Port Talbot’s psychological landscape. Composer Wojciech Rusin’s pulsing, multi-source sound design is like a character in its own right: both urgent and tremulous. Its jittery heartbeat combined with Andy Purves’ lighting evokes a place haunted by its emptiness as the layoffs bite.

The cast – a mix of professional actors and community volunteers – brings a frankness and humour to the sometimes bombastic writing. Sam Coombes, who is also a Port Talbot steelworker, is affecting as his character rails angrily at his redundancy. Ioan Hefin captures the personal pain of being the union rep negotiating the plant’s survival at the cost of pensions.

The prickly tension in present-day sacrifices made in an attempt to safeguard the future is a fascinating inter-generational wrinkle in We’re Still Here’s otherwise uncomplicated celebration of Port Talbot’s history of close-knit family working life. One of the best scenes finds a group of steelworkers, after a lifetime of dangerous work, at loggerheads about having to give up their pension – what one calls his “danger money”.

Largely, though, We’re Still Here tells the story you expect it to, going in. At times, this production shouts itself hoarse as it hammers home its message. But when the main opponents are grimly familiar, just cloaked in the rhetoric of austerity, its rallying cry is still powerfully moving.

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A site-specific dramatisation of the Port Talbot steelworks crisis goes for the gut