"Well, I have no idea what's going on."
I'd just been on a mission to discover where, when, how, and quite possibly, why, that afternoon's show was happening, and I had returned even more confused than when I had left.
Helen, Ellen, and I were at Vaulty Towers. The pub on Lower Marsh Street that looks like it ran away with the circus.
Giant hands, twisted into claws, are mounted over the door, momentarily turning anyone who walks beneath into a puppet. There's a treehouse. And a room that looks like it's just been vacated by a Tarot-toting, crystal ball wielding, fortune teller for being too cliche even for her. And there's a nook primped with yards of pink tulle.
That's where we were. Trust a bunch of dance nerds to find the one spot that makes you feel as if you've got stuck on laundry duty at The Royal Ballet School.
The Vaulty have a very lax approach to decoration. Anyone can join in. The nook's walls were scrawled with messages, love hearts, and even a few phone numbers. Clearly, the clientele at this pub doesn't like to limit their creative outpourings to the toilets.
It was 4.25pm, and there was supposed to be a play starting somewhere in this pub in five minutes. But their was no sign of it.
Nor of the promised pies or pints.
Oh yeah, we were doing the pub-theatre triptych.
Play Pie Pint is pitched as a lunchtime experience at the Vaulty. For a tenner (excluding booking fee) you turn up, get given a pint, a pie, and a play.
Except there was no indication that any of these things existed.
I checked my emails, thinking I must have missed something important, but nope. I had nothing beyond the booking confirmation and a pdf of e-tickets. Start time. Address. That was it. We were on our own.
We grabbed our coats and bags and headed to the bar, keeping our eyes out for a sign of... a sign. Something saying "Theatre this way, you dopes," perhaps. Or a little "Box Office" note taped to the bar. Anything to suggest that this pub was not just a pub, but a pub-theatre.
"Shall I just ask at the bar?" said Helen, going off to do just that, as if that was a normal and sensible thing to do in these situations.
A few minutes later, she returned to tell us of the wisdom she had gained.
"It's happening down there," she said, pointing to a door shaped like a zebra.
But of course. We should have guessed. There was even a sign. It said: "no entry."
We stood around awkwardly, checking our phones and the zebra. It was past 4.30, and the zebra was still closed. The play should already have started.
A bell sounded.
"For those here for Play Pie Pint, the pies are at the end of the bar!"
Oh thank the theatre gods, we had not been forsaken.
"Do we just... grab one?" asked Helen.
I didn't know. That seemed to be what was meant to be happening. But everyone was holding back.
At last, some brave soul dove in, his hand hovering over the trays of pies.
"What's the name?" asked a woman behind the bar. "Have you booked?"
She ticked us off.
Napkins emerged and were plonked down next to the pies. Followed by a box of cutlery. Then a stack of plates. Finally, we were getting somewhere.
"How is it?" asked Ellen as Helen dug in.
Helen shrugged. "It's alright."
"Are we supposed to eat them now, or take them in?" I thought the idea was to have the three Ps all together. But the zebra was still very much closed.
“Is this…,” asked Helen, digging around in her pie. “Is this the first one of these they’ve done?”
“I don’t think so… I don’t think it’s even their first one of the season. It does feel a bit lack in… organisation.”
"Perhaps this is it," said Helen, indicating the people standing around awkwardly holding pies.
"An immersive experience?" I really hoped not.
"If we were to leave now, I wouldn't be mad," said Ellen. I shot her a pleading look. I did not want to be left there alone.
Thankfully, at that moment, the zebra swung open. It was time to go down. There was no backing out now.
Down a flight of steep, rickety stairs, and into the basement.
Stone walls. Piled up suitcases. Forgotten furniture. And still balancing my pie on its plate.
I was getting flashbacks to that immersive Sweeney Todd in a pie shop.
I could only hope that the worst pies in London were the only thing we had to worry about. If anyone offered me a haircut I was out of there.
The spaces we were getting led through were getting smaller and smaller. A black curtain covered the final entrance. I pulled it open and ducked through, fully expecting to be greeted by a man wearing a leather apron and covered in blood on the other side, but instead, there was a semi-circle of mismatched chairs. We had reached the theatre.
It was tiny. Even by the standards of pub theatres. And the carpet pinned to the ceiling was doing little to insulate us from the pounding music being played in the pub above our heads.
"I like the faerie lights," said Ellen. "I know they're only cheap, but they do brighten a space up."
She wasn't wrong. With the entire ceiling covered in a constellation of tiny twinkling lights, this basement was looking pretty fucking charming.
"You brought your pies with you!" called a woman from the other side of the circle. "I left mine upstairs."
"Oh..." I looked down at my pie. Perhaps we weren't meant to take them with us after all.
"It wasn't cooked," she continued. "I gave it right back. They tried to give me another one, but I wasn't having it."
"Is your's raw?" asked Ellen.
"I don't think so?"
It tasted fine. Not the best pie I've ever had. Not even the best theatre pie I've ever had. But it was alright. I mean, you can't go far wrong with a chicken pie.
Chicken? Good. Pastry? Good. No apparent signs of salmonella? Fucking A.
Finishing the pie did leave me with the small worry of what to do with the plate. I settled on tucking it under my chair and hoping I didn't accidentally end up with gravy on my coat.
"Does anyone know if someone should be here, who isn't?" asked a young lad who turned out to be one of the writers' of the play.
There were still a lot of empty chairs. And there had definitely been more pies upstairs than there were people downstairs. The chairs did eventually fill up, but it occurs to me, that without any form of ticket check other than giving a name in exchange for a pie, there is nothing to stop someone dropping in and seeing a play sans-pie. It seems to me that you're paying for the pie and getting the play for free.
Seats filled, pies consumed, and play introduced, we settled down to watch.
Ellen leaned over to me. "Just so you know, this is my nightmare," she said, as the actors took their places.
Forty minutes later, and my friendship with Ellen hanging in the balance, we applauded.
The company, all composed of Guildhall students were keen to get our feedback. "We'll be upstairs, getting very drunk, because you know... students, if you want to come and chat." Bless.
"Did you enjoy that?" one of the actors asked the nearest audience member.
"Yes," she replied. "But my pie wasn't cooked at all. I gave it back and they tried to get me to take another one, but I wasn't having it!"
"Right," he said, all blinking earnestness. "Well, we didn't make the pies..."
It was time to make our escape.
Back through the black curtain. Back past the stacks of furniture and the suitcases. Back up the rickety stairs.
As the others made their way outside, I dithered. The tulle-primped nook was empty save for the legions of notes from past patrons. That was my moment. A chance to make a real difference. I would add to the scrawl of notes. A message for the ages. A warning.
"Pies and plays thatta way -> (Bring your own pint)."
I would be a theatre hero. Nay, a theatre god.
But Helen and Ellen were already waiting outside.
And besides, I didn't have a pen.