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Michael Coveney: Mojo heralds a pantomime season of good (and ill) will

Rupert Grint impresses in his stage acting debut in the West End, while panto season fast approaches at theatres across the land

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Daniel Mays and Rupert Grint at last night's post-show party
© Dan Wooller

It was interesting to see George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, brazening it out in the front stalls at Mojo last night. Maybe he's a friend of one of Jez Butterworth's oldest chums, the former editor of The Times, James Harding; or maybe he just likes Butterworth's plays and rock 'n' roll. Either way, good choice, George: the show's a corker.

And it flared like a rocket in the appropriate venue of the Harold Pinter (formerly the Comedy) last night, seeming neither out of date nor out of place in the post-Jerusalem reputation of the playwright. Although one or two critics jibbed at Rickson's first production - "hollow" said one, "inauthentic" said another - Mojo in 1995 was a rare instance of the critics being uniformly spot-on in recognising what Michael Billington called the most dazzling Royal Court debut since Look Back in Anger.

I was expecting a few rough edges to show up, a few dead spots, a sense of deja vu. But not a hint of any of that. Although Butterworth was only 26, he'd been writing at university and beyond for quite some time, and Mojo appears to have just poured out of him to deadline, fully imagined and fully formed. It's a blast of a play that manages the clever trick of reminding you of quite a few others while sounding totally fresh and original.

One side-issue of the night was whether or not Rupert Grint could follow his Harry Potter mate Daniel Radcliffe into the stage spotlight with any degree of comparable success. He did very well indeed as Daniel Mays' more docile, touchingly naive sidekick; the two of them are a bit like Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky in Gogol's The Government Inspector, small-time chatterboxes in a slightly bigger but still small-time picture. He's got a bit heavier, Grint, filling out to leave boyishness behind perhaps even more effectively than Radcliffe, but he's got great qualities of stillness and innocence on the stage.

The first night crowd included Lenny Henry and casting director Lisa Makin; Stephen Daldry, Stephen Jeffreys and David Lan, all at the Royal Court in 1995 and greatly responsible for Mojo's first presentation as, respectively, artistic director, literary associate and writer in residence; Howard Goodall, David Babani and Adam Kenwright; and a whole mob of Ambassador Theatre Group guests who downed pre-show and interval drinks in the basement of Strada over the road.

Like all normal theatregoers I'm already excited about pantomimes coming soon - the critical shout-out of "I hate pantomime" is as tiresome and snobbish as the "I hate musicals" mantra - and I am already spoilt for choice with the prospect of Billy Pearce in Aladdin at the Bradford Alhambra, Gok Wan and Danielle Hope in Snow White at the Birmingham Hippodrome, and Biggins with Bob Carolgees and Spit the dog in Jack and the Beanstalk at the New Theatre, Hull. (Visit our dedicated panto page)

But Mojo certainly gives you an extra seasonal option, an electrifying antidote to all that season-of-good-will nonsense, if you like, and it's definitely unsuitable for all the family; except that it really does have a mystical dimension, as well as a mythical one, and there is a powerful strain of some sort of love among the low life, charity among the carnage.

I shall be intrigued to see how Turgenev's Fortune's Fool - in which a celebratory occasion goes seriously wrong - fares at the Old Vic over the holiday period, too. It's one of three big London openings in the week before Christmas - the others are Coriolanus at the Donmar and Stephen Ward at the Aldwych - which seem perversely designed to puncture and deflate all the Yuletide bonhomie and festive fun.

The Turgenev opens on the same night as something wholly more suitable, a stage version of Meet Me in St Louis, the great Vincente Minnelli movie in which Judy Garland sang the trolley song, years before she actually fell off hers, and you really can, along with another song, have yourself a Merry Little Christmas now.

The show opens at the Landor on 16 December, my son's birthday (which he shares with Biggins, Beethoven and Noel Coward); and Meet Me in St Louis was showing on television that very night some years ago, so the movie has an extra special place in my affection.

My little lad is seriously grown up now, so much so that, last week, he became an award-winning television documentary filmmaker, having directed How to Build a Bionic Man on Channel 4 earlier this year. The film won in the Best Science or Natural History section of the Grierson Trust documentary awards, so named for the pioneering genius of such films, John Grierson.

It was a nice touch (for me, at least) that he texted me from the after-party in the Queen Elizabeth Hall to say that he was schmoozing in the winners' enclosure with Nina Conti, who won the best entertainment award for her brilliant, strange, and strangely moving, account of transporting the late Ken Campbell's bereaved puppets to their resting home in Kentucky.

One of my first gifts to Thomas, hanging by his cot, was a poster of Lindsay Kemp in Mr Punch's Pantomime, playing at our neighbourhood theatre, the Roundhouse, when he was born; and living up the road, and a Roundhouse regular, was Ken Campbell, part of my theatre-going life since my own childhood. Everything, in the end, joins up in the circle of theatrical life.