The actors aren't in costumes, they're still working out their moves and occasionally referring to scripts but the youngsters gathered at Auckland Theatre Company's Mt Eden headquarters are nonetheless fascinated and spellbound at the scene that unfolds before them.
They're guests at an early rehearsal for ATC's latest production, a stage adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Twits, directed by Alison Quigan and narrated by the versatile Andrew Grainger. Comedians Dave Fane and Te Radar bring to life the delightfully disgusting Mr and Mrs Twit in a show that blends music, dance and huge helpings of slapstick.
"It's a play," says Te Radar, "that really has so much play in it."
True to the book, the dastardly duo play nasty tricks on one another, coerce their pet Mugglewump Monkeys (Harry McNaughton, Sia Trokenheim, Kip Chapman and Sarah Graham) into performing upside-down tricks and plot to catch birds for bird pies, which horrifies the beautiful but down-to-earth roly-poly bird (Anna Jullienne).
Watch just one scene and it's easy to see that by the time the show opens this weekend at Q Theatre, ATC's first fully fledged family show will be as polished as its most urbane offerings.
Director Quigan and designer Tracey Collins have spent months, on and off, working out the logistics of recreating scenes like the final ones where Mr and Mrs Twit - and the entire contents of their household - are turned upside-down.
"Tracey said straightaway she knew exactly how to do that, so I knew we would be fine," says Quigan, giving no clue as to how it will be staged. "We sort of had to start at the end for me to know it would work."
From the beginning, Quigan wanted the show to be pacy; as Te Radar says, youngsters want to see characters "doing stuff". He reckons Mr and Mrs Twit - surely two of the most odious characters in children's literature - are compelling because kids love the grotesque and are naturally drawn to pondering the logistics of making bird pies or gluing boys into trees.
Fane believes kids love the natural cheek of the story. "We know what we are raised to be, how we are meant to behave, but they're introduced and welcomed into a world where people are naughty. There's the sense of fun at being allowed to be part of that."
Musical director Jason Te Mete has drawn on all his experience in children's theatre to create music, a blend of original compositions and adapted contemporary pieces which reference pop culture.
Watch for lots of ukuleles, bongo drums and a rousing version of the Queen hit We Will Rock You.
All involved say they'll feel happy if they see kids sitting in the audience grinning or even hear them telling their parents they want to come to the theatre again. Te Radar has a slightly more nuanced take on it.
"I've got to sing. If one kid goes home thinking, 'if Mr Twit can sing, so can I!' then we'll have done our job."
While ATC readies itself for The Twits at Q Theatre, across Aotea Square another group of actors close to Quigan's heart are preparing for something new, too.
The Outfit Theatre Company, started by Unitec graduates in 2008, takes a step forward in its development, moving into the Herald Theatre with its Christmas production, A Criminal Christmas.
Quigan's daughter, Sarah Graham, who plays a mugglewump in The Twits, is one of the co-artistic directors of The Outfit who have been winning fans and acclaim for their energetic contemporary productions using ensemble casts of young actors.
This year, the company has joined the development programme STAMP at The Edge, for their 12th show which goes where no other Kiwi Christmas farce has gone before: a rest home. As part of an "innovative" community service rehab-through-theatre programme, a bunch of petty crims find themselves spending Christmas Eve entertaining the elderly residents of a financially troubled rest home.
Keeping true to its aim to make devised theatre where "the lines learn the actors rather than the actor learning the lines", there is a 10-strong cast. "We might be 'growing up' in terms of our marketing, but we have the same artistic heart," says fellow co-artistic director Joel Herbert. "We still enjoy working together and working in the same way. Being in the Herald Theatre allows us to bring our way of working into a traditional theatre environment. It's a nice meeting between traditional theatre and our edgier style."
Also on for Christmas
The Santa Claus Show
Pumphouse, Takapuna, December 5-23. A Christmas tradition for dozens of Auckland families. Now in its 10th year, Tim Bray wrote it 20 years ago for his nieces Kelly and Alana Tisdall. It tells the story of Kelly who has the longest Christmas wish list Santa has ever seen. Santa flies Kelly to the North Pole so she can learn the true meaning of Christmas. Performing in the show has also become a tradition for some of the cast. This year, Tim Raby returns as Santa's double - his eighth time in the role - while Kura Forrester is back in the role of Kelly (she performed it in 2005 and 2009).
A Krazy Kristmas, Basement Theatre, December 7-11. Prolific playwright Tom Sainsbury pokes festive fun at Christmas - carollers, awkward relatives, working Christmas Day and Coca-Cola Christmas in the Park - in a series of short plays about the silly season.
Silent Night, Tapac, Western Springs, December 14-18. After a successful North Island tour, Yvette Parsons brings her one-woman show Silent Night back to Auckland. Best described as comic drama, it's the story of battler Irene McMunn who looks back on her life as she prepares for Christmas. Parsons was partly inspired by her childhood experiences living in a rest home run by her parents.