What do parents do when they're at the end of their several tethers as far as their scruffy sub-teen son is concerned (you may have one just like him at home)? if you're Mr and Mrs Williams, you run away. To join a circus.
Jan Needle's first book for children was written primarily to interest one of his sons in reading. The sheer anarchy of the story and its characters, especially its eponymous anti-hero, latches on to all those activities which children enjoy because they know that their elders disapprove, from farting to nose-picking, from eating all the wrong things to not washing.
Wagstaffe makes his own mayhem – but some of it he does clear up with the help and occasional hindrance of a galaxy of oddballs. Adrian Stokes' dramatisation in Janice Dunn's inventive production keeps the story on the move from the softball game occupying the stage as the audience gathers though several very well thought-out special effects and so through to the satisfying ending. I have an impression that the older members of the audience enjoy it all just as much as the youngsters do.
Michael Thomson is extremely funny as Wagstaffe, blithely making his own as well as other people's existence into potentially lethal disasters while somehow keeping us all thoroughly on his side. He's eventually helped first by Maria Lohmann's Dr Dhondi, a female variation on the Frankenstein theme and then by Clare Humphrey as Mandy Badsox, a diminutive Annie Oakley for the 21st century with a novel way of twisting her parents around her little trigger finger.
Our villain is ringmaster Troutfish, a burly dictator who has a nasty way with contractual obligations. Tim Treslove may be fairly said to revel in his nastiness. Christine Absalom and Ben Livingstone are Wagstaff'e hapless parents whose metamorphosis into circus clowns and acrobats is nicely underlined by Joanne Scotcher's costumes. Her set is a tilted circle, whirling dizzily with coloured slats.
This is the first show other than pantomimes which the Mercury has mounted especially for children and their families. In one way it's a step into the unknown, especially at a time of financial crisis. But then Wagstaffe himself first steps into the unknown through his own, deliberate choice. And we know that his story has a happy ending.