Enchanting, humorous, energetic, playful and inventive are adjectives often associated with theatre for children. Less so are themes which involve domestic violence, loneliness, fear, religion and depression.
So it's a clever piece of work which manages to marry them together and leave audiences - from New York to Sydney to London - feeling thrilled and uplifted.
Silo Theatre artistic director Sophie Roberts agrees The Book of Everything is no ordinary child's tale and says its themes, magical realism and characters mean it will appeal to audiences from 9 to 90.
The play is set in 1951 in Holland where 9-year-old Thomas (Patrick Carroll) is trying to make sense of life in a forlorn household where his father (Sam Snedden), still bearing the scars of World War II, rules with fists and a fiery temper. Thomas' mother (Mia Blake) tries to keep the peace while his sister Margot (Olivia Tennet) thinks Thomas is as "dumb as an onion".
To escape, he invents a make-believe world where he sometimes converses with Jesus (Tim Carlsen) and sees things other people around him do not: a plague of green frogs, summer hailstorms and tropical fish in Amsterdam's not-so-warm canals. He's abetted by women in his community: Auntie Pie (Jennifer Ward-Lealand), Mrs Van Amersfoort (Rima Te Wiata) and Margot's friend Eliza (Michelle Blundell). Thomas writes it all down in his diary, The Book of Everything, along with his most fervent wish: "When I grow up, I'm going to be happy."
Carroll, in his first professional role out of drama school, describes Thomas as a child with an extremely vivid imagination who can't quite see exactly what he has to deal with: "It's about facing the fears of everyday life and the perhaps naive wisdom you need to have to carry on."
Written by Guus Kuijer, the award-winning book was adapted for stage by Australian author Richard Tulloch and first performed in Sydney in 2010. Although Roberts didn't see the play, she read the script and laughed and cried. She continues to be enchanted by the way it manages to be thoughtful and reflective as well as an uplifting celebration of life.
When discussions began with the Auckland Arts Festival Roberts thought immediately of The Book of Everything. Festival support means Silo can stage it on a grander scale, using set designer John Verryt, costumier Kirsty Cameron, lighting whizz Sean Lynch and musical director Thomas Press.
Roberts says it allows Silo to bring out the full wild theatricality of the piece but she hesitates when asked if it's "brave" theatre for children. "No, that's not the word I would use because I think it's what children's theatre should be. It's a very Brechtian style of theatre in that Thomas talks directly to the audience and the ensemble work around him to create his imaginative world.
"It never underestimates the capacity children and young people have to deal with really big, complicated ideas: injustice, violence, faith, love, fear and friendship." Snedden, father of 10-year-old Daisy, agrees: "It assumes that audiences are not stupid. You can try to hide things from children but they always know - sense - when something is up. Children and young people are a sophisticated and honest audience and are willing to make the big imaginative leaps that this show makes but it's a piece of theatre for everyone."
He says he won't try to make Thomas's father likeable, but will try to show the reasons for the character's anger-fuelled behaviour. "This is post-World War II Europe and there's a tendency to think about the 1950s as this time of growth and abundance but Europe had just come out of war, there was a major recession and it was literally dragging itself out of the quagmire.
"He's a man who believes in playing by the rules - following orders - in order to be protected so he's latched on to a way of behaving so what appears to be stubbornness and intractability is actually his way of protecting himself and his family. He's incredibly fearful and that manifests itself as anger."
Similarly, Blake is keen to show the complexities in the character of Thomas' mother and says her biggest challenge is to understand how this woman survives.
"Most people would look at her and see a victim but I don't want her to come across like that. I want the situation to be seen for what it is but to also show the complexities of it all. There's no simple solution for this woman and her family."
She likes the psychology involved, the challenge of bringing a character like the seemingly submissive mother to life and working with a large ensemble, particularly as Blake's most recent appearance was in the two-hander Pure and Deep by Toa Fraser.
If Blake and Snedden have difficult work to do, Carroll arguably has an even bigger challenge to play a 9-year-old who's on stage the entire time. He knows Roberts from the Long Cloud Youth Theatre and says it's less daunting because of the calibre of the people he's working with.
"And the text is really beautiful and, as you read, you can hear the music of the play. I think the most fun will be bringing to life the scene where there's a plague of green frogs that swarm the stage. I think that's one of the most joyous parts of it and I can't wait to bring that to life."
What: The Book of Everything
Where and when: Q Theatre, March 14 to 22