A turnip-head “Scarecrow of enterprise and talent” comes to life when struck by lightning. Keen to return to his native Spring Valley, he recruits the orphaned and itinerant Jack – “an honest and willing youth” – as his servant, to fetch, carry and generally knock the stuffing into him. There’s no money in it, of course, but there will be a boundless supply of “excitement and glory”. Which boy could say no?

Adapted by Simon Reade (also director.) from the children’s fable by Oxfordshire novelist Philip Pullman, The Scarecrow and His Servant is a new tapestry on the Candide life-in-a-day frame, a story of self-knowledge, integrity, and companionship.

Jack (Finn Hanlon) and the Scarecrow (Andrew Pepper) combat pirates, charlatans, shady detectives, travelling players (naturally), inhospitable farmers’ wives, shipwreck, tropical islands, and woodworm. They are little men battling big evils (for example. the Buffaloni family, who are polluting Spring Valley with their factories) albeit while pursuing their own simple ends: namely, the quest for some lunch.

Through their adventures the play explores the universal themes of human folly, crookery, hypocrisy, perfidy, and other things ending in ‘y’ – excluding obscenity and profanity: it’s a kids’ show, after all.

Mark Leipacher, Oliver Senton and Stephanie Street between them provide the rolling cast of some 30 satellite characters, and what with the Terry-Jones-esque old crone, the corrupt magistrate and the Scarecrow’s C3PO mobility issues the result is a little more panto, I’d imagine, than in Pullman’s original (albeit the whole business is set in Italy, for that extra cartoonish flamboyance).

This isn’t a fairy tale about fairy tales (Gilliam), nor does it send up the genre (Shrek). But the fairy tale, with its knowingly referenced universal characters and freely translatable plot points, is Pullman’s natural home. Only he would combine corporate chemical pollution, C.18th politics/war and beer . . . in a children’s tale.

Pullmania aside, though, the audience at the show I saw had an average age of about seven. And while the performance, per se, was clearly aimed at them – especially Chris Larner’s cheery songs – the script isn’t. These kids don’t know what “ventriloquism” is (least of all when pronounced in a Jim Broadbent Italiano accentissimo), nor do they see the humour in a broom eloping with “a rake”, or recognise jokes involving Mozart opera.

On the other hand, there were peals of laughter coming from the critics’ benches, and it was sincere, too. How often do you get to say that?

The Scarecrow and His Servant is at Southwark Playhouse, until January 10 at 2.30pm and 7:30pm. Tickets: £15 (£10 concs.) or £40 for a family tickets: 0207 407 0234 (www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk)