You enter the theatre to find the Canadian puppeteer Jeff Achtem grunting and scratching himself on a stage full of odd bits and pieces. The scene is like a jumble sale hit by a hurricane. There’s a washing line of stuff, a free-standing easel, a few lights and a white screen.
Out of this, and a clever soundtrack, Achtem devises a black and white animated cartoon featuring a pair of snails, a snake, a bird with a cockatoo hairstyle and a Bart Simpson-ish goofy hunter, all of whom set off in a canoe along a river and are swallowed by a crocodile.
The stroke of genius is that Achtem remains at the centre of the action – “Achtem, achtung” – so that we see him struggling to manipulate his limbs and fingers into position while juggling the cartoon characters, sometimes dropping things and getting his own knickers in a right old twist.
The story accelerates, and Achtem hands out reeds, fronds, wobbly rubbery things and mop-like sea anemones to the audience. When lit from behind by a single torch, these create a living, heaving sea-bed.
Three large screens are deployed in what now becomes a 3-D adventure movie — the glasses have been distributed – and we’re assailed by flying jellyfish and a cascade of bubbles as the bird whizzes round our heads (“Eat your heart out, Avatar!”) pursued by the hunter in an old-fashioned bi-plane.
It’s Blue Peter magic on a shoestring, a crude theatrical budget bean-feast to delight children of all ages; and it sends us home to start pulling out our toy theatres and cardboard boxes, candles and torches, all over again. The very root of all theatre has been celebrated.