Deep in the cavernous interior of a former Covent Garden vegetable vault, barrel-organ music blares from an upright piano played by invisible hands. Around it, spotlit figures including the odd skeleton and Anubis jackal-god of the dead, intermittently nod, fly, sway or jerk eerily until, as your eyes adjust to the gloom, you realise the dark shapes crouched in front of them are nothing more sinister than schoolchildren pressing buttons to bring this surreal scenario into being.
The figures are part of a whimsical and sometimes macabre collection of wood and metal automata housed in the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, many with their innards - various simple and intricate combinations of cams, levers, cogs and springs - open to view.
A row of topless can-can dancers has attracted some Year 11 boys from the Geoffrey Chaucer School, London SE1, who, contrary to what you might expect, are more interested in sketching the naked mechanisms beneath the dancers' high-kicking feet than gazing at their bobbing boobs. Their teacher, Jackie Addison, has brought her class here to stimulate ideas for their GCSE technology mechanical toy project and is pointing out automata useful for that purpose, such as a bird with flapping wings containing a cam device to turn a rotary motion into up-and-down movements.
Jongchan Cha and Michael Cuddy,with several neat diagrams, explain they are "interested in how everything fits together to make the automata work and in getting ideas for different types of mechanism to use for our own designs".
Cabaret began 15 years ago as a small craft shop in Falmouth, Cornwall, run by Sue Jackson. Two artist friends, Peter Markey and Paul Spooner, made a few pieces for the shop and these became the nucleus of the present exhibition.
One day, Ms Jackson attached a coin-slot mechanism to Spooner's "Last Judgement", a moving skeleton based on a Hieronymus Bosch painting, and went to the pub. When she returned it was full of coins. This spurred her on to get further artists involved and in 1985 the much-expanded Mechanical Theatre moved to Covent Garden.
Exhibits include Markey's bright jungle scenes with square-headed snapping crocodiles and tigers and Spooner's furtive cat drinking someone else's milk, man submerged in a bathtub of pasta, and ubiquitous Anubis, Lord of the Mummy Wrappings.
Alongside the exhibition is a shop and several 20p coin-slot peepshows including Keith Newstead's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", in which the eyes of a businessman in a railway carriage turn into green lights, signalling his ultimate transformation into an alien.
A frequent visitor to Cabaret is Barry McGregor, head of technology at Hookergate School, Tyne and Wear, whose Year 8 students won an award at the 1994 Tyneside Science and Technology Fair following a three-day workshop with Cabaret's Keith Newstead. The project proved, says Barry, how fun automata can be produced using cheap materials like card and kebab sticks.
His pupils designed two sets of five faces with mouths, ears, hair and table tennis ball eyes, which were connected with string and two slow-turning motors on a plywood seaside background, and moved independently of each other when switched on.
Another enthusiast is Terry Hewitt from Sir Bernard Lovell School, Bristol, writer of the key stage 3 and 4 sections of the Nuffield Design and Technology Project with David Barlex, the project director. He used pieces borrowed from Cabaret to start his mixed ability pupils on "natural linkage with levers and gears as cams are too complex for many of them. I let them play with the automata with trepidation as they are fragile and expensive, but they treated them carefully and were thrilled, intrigued and amused by them".
Mr Barlex videoed the automata and students' work to show subsequent pupils and also uses the three Cabaret videos "although they are somewhat complex and the language level is too high for many children".
Cabaret has inspired pupils of all ages to make toys of their own. Evelyn Precieux's key stage 1 pupils from Grove Vale Primary School, East Dulwich, "learned about movement and went on to make a simple toy - moving body parts, perhaps, or pushing and pulling something along a slide."
Terry Hewitt's students produced "a pull-along duck with wooden wheels and flapping strips of leather for wings, a toy for a blind child with a variety of textures and sounds, a glider and an abacus", while Jackie Addison's have made "a jack-in-the-box, merry-go-rounds, a pick-up truck and a crane with a turning handle and linkage system".
STORY: o The Cabaret Mechanical Theatre is at 3334 The Market, Covent Garden, London WC2. Tel: 0171 379 7961. Admission is Pounds 1.95 adults, Pounds 1.20 for children, (20 per cent group discount).
A separate travelling show of automata is also available for hire