Holly Gallagher has a bucket, filling up with all of life’s complications as easily as water. All of us in fact have a similar metaphorical bucket, Gallagher tells us, only varying in size depending on how much each individual can take. It’s a stressful concept to give thought to, and stress is the lingua franca of Gallagher’s three characters in Tensile Strength (or How to Survive at Your Wit’s End). It’s an incredibly easy concept for us to get behind, even without further fleshing out of Gallagher’s characters. Who among us has never freaked out about something they’d said or done (did I really write “lingua franca” instead of “common language”)? Who hasn’t worried about the reactions of others (they’re going to think I’m a twat for writing “lingua franca”, aren’t they)?
Gallagher sits at a desk, dotted with de-stress items (a small plant, a bottle of water) and when she first turns the page on the show’s script it invokes an exam hall, the paper being opened. The script on stage lends the show the same feel as a rehearsed reading, keeping the tone light and casual. It works well when the house lights go up at intervals, in order for Gallagher to talk directly with her audience. Gallagher seems to be establishing herself as a storyteller, rather than an actor, here. She stares out at the middle distance mid-monologue which keeps that wistful feel of a performer sat within a role, but never quite commits to lending the characters any physicality.
These characters are left fairly bare in terms of their presence on stage: none of them are named, simply referred to by their pronouns (Gallagher’s using they/them pronouns for one character so it’s safe to assume there’s one female, one male and one non-binary focal point in the show). It’s an invitation for the audience to step into each person’s shoes and fully appreciate the tensions within their narrative, interwoven at points without the characters ever interacting. One steps on the bus as another is sat some rows back, taking in news of his partner going into labour, it’s a bit Love Actually. Stress really is all around us, Hugh Grant might say.
Whereas Gallagher’s aiming for a wider view of stress on society, the stories still seem very limited to a set age bracket (20s-30s) with a set income level (none too affluent) in a single small, North-Eastern industrial town. This narrow lens hints at a really interesting concept: it’s unavoidable seeing these characters from a millennial perspective. They’re overtired, overworked and underpaid. They’re old enough to be expected to have decent jobs, stable relationships, children, but can’t afford to buy their own place or even move out from the parental home. All three experience head-on what it’s like to discover your mental health is flailing. Gallagher seems to be skirting around wider issues here, around a polemic against the systems in place to help (even referencing how long it can take to be held on the waiting list to start CBT) and yet this never translates into a rousing call to arms against the society that’s putting us in our nervous place. The show ends leaving one character in a desperate situation still: is this done out of realism or because Gallagher genuinely doesn’t know what comes next?