Tensile Strength (or How to Survive at Your Wit’s End)

Hollly Gallagher
ARC Stockton
The Studio, York Theatre Royal

Holly Gallagher’s second solo show is a simply-staged and -written tale about a range of stresses and pressures encountered in everyday life. She welcomes her audience into the theatre from her seat behind an uncluttered desk, surrounded by buckets which later become symbolically significant.

Before we are told exactly what their relevance is, though, Gallagher turns a page on her script, looks us in the eye and starts her story. Or rather, starts telling us three separate stories which intertwine and overlap.

One, identified only as ‘she’, is struggling with the feast and famine of negotiating precarious work with often punishing hours. Another, ‘he’, faces the prospect of becoming a father two months earlier than he’d expected, feeling like even that long would not be enough to prepare. The third, described using the non-gender-specific ‘they’, is on the threshold of relationship breakdown.

The atmospheric storytelling is also interrupted by moments of more direct address from Gallagher, who steps out from behind the table to speak conversationally with the audience, asking gentle questions about our own experiences of anxiety and stress.

This is where the buckets come in: they are a metaphor employed in mental health counselling, in which the individual imagines their various stresses as pouring into a vessel with a limited capacity. One way of dealing with these feelings is to imagine taps, which can be turned on through certain activities or behaviours, letting some anxieties out from the bucket.

For those not already familiar with the analogy, Gallagher’s explanation seemed a little brief and hazy; this led to some confusion in the audience, though she dealt well with these interactions overall. The same might be said of some of the writing and delivery throughout: the lack of names for the central characters makes a great deal of sense stylistically, but contributes to a certain lack of definition around some parts of the narrative. Like the leaves that ‘blur in and out of focus’ outside a window early in her storytelling, I found that the clarity about the sequence of events, and about who we were following at what point, drifted in and out a little.

Katharine Williams’s simple but effective lighting design supports the action well, focusing in when needed, and opening up to a shared space for the more interactive moments. Roma Yagnik’s sound design is apt and unobtrusive, though I wasn’t sure about the logics by which some sections would fade in and out.

Gallagher’s development process for the show has been mentored by Kieran Hurley, and there’s a clear debt to his brilliant work Heads Up in both the staging and construction of the piece. Hurley’s writing takes on apocalyptic events through astutely described day-to-day details, with the confident storytelling and characterisation to be expected of his lengthier experience of the format.

Tensile Strength, while not as assured, is more interested in the way your day-to-day life can itself feel like the end of the world. Though the minimalist style of the performance will not be to everyone’s taste, a lot of people will doubtless recognise some aspect or other of themselves in it. In its offer of a compact, welcoming space in which to feel both empathy and recognition, this is certainly an admirable work, and it’s a pleasure to see York Theatre Royal continuing to book in such a variety of ambitious and emerging artists.

Mark Smith