THEATRE / A choice evening: Paul Taylor on Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays at the Cottesloe

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IT IS said that a golf club party once found itself booked, by mistake, into a performance of one of Alan Ayckbourn's plays for children. Instead of making a precipitate dive to the bar, they stayed put and were to be observed yelling for their invisible friend alongside the boisterous school parties. Not that Ayckbourn's is the kind of kids' theatre that specialises in sending knowing winks to the grown-ups over the childrens' heads. It abstains from buttering up the adults just as much as it avoids talking down to the infants. What gives it its broad family appeal is the attractive way Ayckbourn always manages to combine some form of theatrical wizardry (of a technical kind) with a story that, before resolving on a note of unforced optimism, taps primitive fears and fantasies that people of all ages can respond to.

Just opened at the Cottesloe in the author's own sprightly, expertly-pitched production, Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays (said to be for six-year-olds upwards) is a delightful addition to this canon. At the start, there's a bizarre form of bereavement. The father of the heroine, Suzy (Judith McSpadden), takes off in a balloon race and fails to come down again, leaving daughter and mother (the hilarious Georgie Glen) to get by alone, with only the precarious protection of Neville, the large Pedigree Old English Wolf Boxer (adorably played by Adam Godley).

Despite the passage of time, Suzy remains staunchly hopeful of the father's return. But then the big, spooky house opposite is occupied by the suave, sinister Mr Acousticus (Glyn Grain) and, blinded by his flattery, the mother goes stupidly romantic and starts to succumb with indecent haste. Suzy's fears that the absent father will be supplanted are intensified by the strong conviction that the mother is being taken in by a villain who steals people's voices. When Neville loses his bark and a neighbour is robbed of his calamitously out-of-tune tenor, Suzy and dog decide to search Mr A's gothic mansion.

Though still half-dead from a vicious dose of flu, my five-year-old assistant was on the edge of her seat throughout the second half, when the audience takes a series of votes on which route the pair should follow in their quest for the Cabinet of Sounds. Democracy in action, bringing home to children the unique liveness of theatre? Well, sort of, except that you can also enjoy here-and-now interventionism in computer games and often the laughter at the performance we saw was caused by a choice that was no choice at all. Into the playroom or down the chute? What self-respecting child would choose the former?

With pillows that squawk like chickens and rats in the cellar that sound like racing cars, Mr A's house is the sort of place where you'd be most likely to get a 'Bluebells of Scotland' door chime by switching on a tap. Once they reach the sound hoard (a smoking cabinet of intricately filed drawers), Suzy and Neville search for the lost bark, while giddily sucking up sounds and spitting them at each other. Suzy's cheeks bunch and out spurts the noise of a flushing loo. But all this is folly, for they know that Mr A, although across the road with their mother, has morbidly sensitive ears.

It wouldn't be fair to reveal the ending, except to say that many adults may feel that Mr A and his cunning campaign for silence deserves a more sympathetic hearing. All right, it's a bit much of him to switch off birdsong, but what about ubi- quitous muzak in hotels, or those exhaustive buffet car announcements on trains (repeated item-for-item at every stop), or virtually anyone who has ever spoken on a 'yoof' programme. With a little counselling, our villain could even become a great humanitarian.

Continues in rep at the National Theatre (Box-Office 071-928 2252)