The Week In Arts: A daring new role for the National Theatre

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The redoubtable Thelma Holt is a West End producer not averse to taking risks. Her track record has been recognised as far afield as Japan, which recently bestowed upon her its prestigious commendation, the Order of the Rising Sun. But with her next venture she is doing something even she has not done before - putting on a show sight unseen.

Terence Rattigan's Man and Boy, starring David Suchet, had had a regional tour, but Ms Holt had yet to see the production. The controversial play has not been staged in London since 1963, when its plot of a father asking his son to pretend to be homosexual to entrap a client caused a predictable stir. Thelma Holt wanted it back in the West End so badly that she dispensed with the usual formality of actually seeing it.

For me, she has highlighted a bigger issue here than this particular play. It is the issue of how some of Britain's foremost playwrights fall out of fashion and are neglected. Any play by Rattigan in the West End is rare. At the National Theatre his plays are rarer still. Should it not have been Nicholas Hytner's National Theatre that took the plunge and restaged this cause celebre?

But then, for all its brilliance under Hytner, the National Theatre is still not a place where one should look for a history of British playwriting. I have given up asking directors of the National Theatre how they define the words National Theatre. It's too painful to watch the puzzled expressions on their faces. And nowhere in the NT's own literature is it defined.

Rattigan, once a giant of the British theatre, who must be virtually unknown to two generations or more, is seldom staged there. It's the same story with a host of other playwrights who were significant figures in their time - from Somerset Maugham to Arnold Wesker.

It is wrong to assume that there is not a hunger among audiences to explore the work of writers long thought to be out of fashion. Look at the success over the past year of R C Sherriff's First World War play Journey's End and the extensions to its run as the audiences kept on flocking in.

It shouldn't have to fall to bold, commercial producers such as Thelma Holt to put the microscope on Britain's theatrical heritage. The National Theatre could mount a season of 20th-century British playwriting every year in one of its three auditoria. Perhaps one decade could feature each year. It would be a way of reflecting not just on styles of playwriting but also on the social mores of the period.

Now there's a daring new role for the National Theatre. It could be a National Theatre.

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