If there is one thing a very young, theatre audience loves, it's watching adults behave like children. And if there's one thing that binds them together, it's a sense of "fairness".
In Licketyspit's new show, Hare and Tortoise, an adaptation of Aesop's classic fable, the childish antics (the clowning skills) of actors Paul Chaal and Tas Emiabata have the youngsters screaming with delight. The sillier, the better.
Not that the infant and nursery children are fooled by the illusion of theatricality. The actors enter the stage as actors and show how they will become the Hare (a wee pair of tights on the head makes for good floppy ears) and the Tortoise (a basket strapped to the back makes a good shell). This encourages the children in constructing their own make-believe versions of the story when they leave the theatre.
Hare, in this version, is proud, boastful and vain - and not beyond a bit of cheating, while likeable, plodding Tortoise is open and honest. Panto- style, the audience is divided down the middle into two camps of supporters.
But such is the child's apparent love of the underdog, that quite a few positioned in the Hare camp quickly defect to the Tortoise, preferring "Go, Tortoise, go!" to "Hare will be there! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" And when the racing Hare, perfectly legitimately, decides to dig his way through a hill ("because hares can dig"), such is the moral fervour of all concerned that the auditorium rings to the "Cheat! Cheat! Cheat!" chant beloved of partisan football supporters when an opposing player takes a dive in the penalty box.
The involvement is total - perhaps over-reaction. "Hare's a terrible show- off. But he's really all right," pleads Tortoise, trying to calm the fervour. And in the end he is "all right" because, after much adventure, both cross the finishing line together. That is fair, and moral scruples are drowned in loud cheers.
"Children always take off on Licketysplit," says Morag Tickell, a nursery nurse at Stoneyhill Primary in Musselburgh, East Lothian. "Hare and Tortoise is the company's third show we've seen and they always get this level of involvement as they write so well for young children."
Post-show, her nursery charges are seeking out costumes and props to mount their own version. "They're empowered by it because they've seen how the actors introduce the show and make up their costumes. We don't have ready- made costumes or props, so there's a lot of problem-solving involved and they're quick to direct each other with little adult prompting."
Mrs Tickell is also impressed by the effect it has on children's confidence, as well as their imagination. "Those who wouldn't normally volunteer are often the first to come forward with ideas, and it also has an effect on vocabulary. One child asked to be the "race commentator", because he remembered the voice-over the production used. I've seen so many children advance through Licketyspit shows. The choice of language hits the mark. It helps them find their own voices."
Nor is it a transitory experience, she says. "They remember the shows for a long time. They remember the active audience involvement, the enjoyment of learning the stories and taking part in their own versions. They get so much out of it; it will give them a lifelong love of theatre."
Licketyspit's artistic director, Virginia Radcliffe, believes the show is resonating in a powerful way with them because "it explores the painful friendship dynamics between young children developing at different rates, physically as well as psychologically".
Hare and Tortoise is touring Scotland until October 17