Joe Venable, co-writer of the musical 'No Cash Left on the Premises Overnight', reflects on his play, and what "play" might even mean.
I think ‘playhouse’ might be the loveliest word in the English language. Two of the nicest possible things – play and a house – have been made one, unhyphenated as though it were the most natural thing in the world. The imaginative space of play married blissfully with the concrete space of house. The wildness of play tempered by the domesticity of house. Playhouse. The opposite of a workhouse, and surely a vast improvement on the poorhouse, the plague house or indeed the doghouse. What’s not to like?
It’s even a joy to say: playhouse, big long diphthongs and a hushed h creating a wild undefined midriff sandwiched by a playfully plosive pl and a snug sibilant s. I have no objection to the word theatre, but I do rather associate it with getting lobotomised, or tonsillected. Such things would not happen in a playhouse, site of all that is lovely. To think that the Puritans once tried to shut them down! It’s almost enough to put one off Puritanism altogether.
Still, the status of the playhouse is a vexed question even today. As a child, it’s considered acceptable to have one of these fine structures in your garden – indeed if you don’t, I’ve heard nobody comes to your eighth birthday party, not that I would know, or would even care actually; in fact I’m totally over it. But beyond a certain degree of maturity, you’re not supposed to go in the playhouse: you should be practising your cello, or studying for your exams, or do you think my Audi is going to clean itself? You’re supposed to tumble down into the real world, and do real, practical things, not the fantastical jaunts of the playhouse.
However: I have been let in on a secret. In Cambridge, home of the Ancient Mariner, Winnie the Pooh and the Flying Teapot, playhouses are for real. In my view the most real of all is the ADC Theatre, which bills itself rather delightfully as the oldest university playhouse in England. In a complex set-up it took me quite some time to get my head round, the plays performed are fictional, but the audience is real* – they pay with real money (you can’t get in with play-dough) and eat real ice creams.
To my mind, the ADC epitomises what university should be about – a place you can try out a new skill, with the freedom to fail and the support to make a go of it. It’s a halfway house (a halfplay house?) between pretend and real, amateur and proper: a place you can pose as a play-man, a playmaker, a playwright – even if deep down you still feel like a mere play-boy. (Note to self: must remember to check whether any of these phrases have unexpected connotations.)
This week I am offering up my final play, my Hail Mary before I graduate – a musical called No Cash Left on the Premises Overnight. It’s unapologetically playful, a heist comedy that sends up clichés about bank robberies while trying not to fall into them. This is harder than it looks – a veritable tap dance on a rodeo bull on a see-saw in a minefield – but I reckon we get aplay with it. It has all the elements you’d want: a jaded ringleader, a gormless dunderhead, and also a chronically anxious burglar who’s scared of burgling things. We’ve got big, toe-tapping tunes, genuinely jocular jokes and, at one point, a rhyme on the word dachshund that I’m embarrassingly proud of.
Like all good play, No Cash was undertaken with friends. I only met Ben James, the composer and true genius behind the show, about a week before lockdown began. Even though we’ve traded lyrics and demos and plot points virtually every day for the last fifteen months, opening night will still be just the fourth time we’ve been in a room together; I for one cannot wait to feel that giddy spark again as we lock eyes and everything else goes still. And Ben is just one collaborator – part of the joy of the playhouse is how it throws you together in kaleidoscopic formations with directors and producers, singers and dancers, stage managers and lighting designers, a plethora of plucky playmates. My producer Millie has wisely advised me against using the phrase ‘it’s exactly like fighting in a war together’, but you get the idea – and indeed Millie’s intervention is a fine example of exquisite producer-lyricist collaboration. We get along like a playhouse on fire.
I’m hoping you’ll come and watch No Cash, in person or on a livestream, because that’s what keeps the magical play machine going: without an audience, it’s a playtest rather than a playgroup. And if you’ve never had the delight of getting involved in the play, I hope you know that every time you put your credit card details into adctheatre.com, you’re helping keep the beautiful beast in motion: the chocolate factory, the enchanted forest, the wonderland rabbit hole where we hang suspended, Schrodinger’s Cheshire Cat, neither grown-up nor child, neither amateur nor professional, neither reality nor imagination, but grinning all the while.
And then when it’s done, the curtain goes down on both No Cash and my degree. I suppose I’ll have to get a proper job – dad only pays me £2 for washing his Audi – but in my heart perhaps I’ll always be at the ADC. This playhouse feels like playhome.
* I recently stood for CUADC president on a platform of introducing an inverse system, where people pay imaginary money to watch real-life shows. Lamentably I received zero votes: I tried to vote for myself but accidentally submitted my ballot to a fictional election in Act Two of Coriolanus. Perhaps all my other supporters made the same error.