"Tee hee hee," goes an embarrassed girl.
"Call that a laugh?" demands the clown. "Now I'll show you how to laugh."
"Just try, mate," the boy next to me mutters.
The famous Yuri Kuklachov has brought his unique Cat Theatre to Kuzminki, a working-class suburb of Moscow. I have come with a friend, who organises outings for deprived children.
The boy beside me is from this group, a cynical 11-year-old called Fedya. "I bet the cats fall and splat like mincemeat," he says.
The children, and the adults who have rediscovered the child in themselves, may be receptive but Kuklachov is going to have to work hard to win over such sneering near-teenagers.
Actually, I am rather sceptical, too. As a cat owner, I know the truth of the old joke where the dog says to himself: "He feeds me, he strokes me, he must be God." The cat says: "He feeds me, he strokes me, I must be God." You can never make a cat do what it does not want to do.
But of course Kuklachov, who has been working with cats for 25 years, knows that and always goes with rather than against their instincts. The show opens with the clown setting out a picnic and the cats stealing titbits. It is nature, but choreographed.
A ginger cat enters, seeming to push a pram containing a tiny dog. "You can see the wires," says Fedya. "That's because the pram is heavy," I say, "but could you make your cat stand up on its back legs and strut across the stage like that?"
The acts become increasingly spectacular. Cats walk the high wire and fly out over the audience on swings. The black and white Sosiskin (Little Sausage) climbs an eight-metre pole, the drums roll and he jumps, "without parachute or gas mask", into Kuklachov's arms.
The cats' feats are interspersed with acts by promising child circus performers. At the end, Kuklachov throws giant plastic balls out for the audience to punch back and forth. Forgetting his street cred, Fedya leaps from his seat to join in.
In his field, Kuklachov is as great as Rudolf Nureyev was in ballet. "Love is the key," he says. "I hate the circus because everything there is achieved by force. This is not circus, it's theatre. The cats are playing for pleasure."
While he peels off his false nose, Kuklachov tells me that nine years ago he lived and worked in Blackpool. Because of British quarantine laws, he could not take his own cats, raised from kittens, but he managed with a temporary troupe adopted from the RSPCA. "I can communicate with any cat," he says.
Homesickness propelled him back to Russia, where he nearly went out of business as the state, generous in Communist times, stopped subsidising the arts. A pet food firm now sponsors him and donates 120 tins of meat a day - one for each cat.
Kuklachov gives me a book of tricks you can do at home. I am also carrying an armful of posters signed by the clown.
"Can I have one of those?" asks Fedya.
"You liked the show, then?"
"It wasn't bad." From an 11-year-old who has seen it all, this is praise indeed.Reuse content