Friday, 7 August 2015

Hush! Hush! Whisper Who Dares! (review of BBC Radio 4 play about E.H. Shepard and Christopher Robin Milne)

I have just listened to Hush! Hush! Whisper Who Dares, a Radio 4 play imagining a meeting between Winnie the Pooh artist E.H. Shepard and the adult Christopher (Robin) Milne, son of A. A. Milne.

It works very well, partly because of its narrowness of focus. And it's unsensational, by which I mean that although their meeting in later life (Shepard is ninety) is a product of playwright Christopher William Hill's imagination, the parallels which Hill draws between their respective situations are convincing. He even alights on a entirely plausible reason why Christopher Milne might have felt impelled to seek Shepard out at that particular time (presumably late '69 or early 1970, given Shepard's age).

And what is that reason? Unfortunately I can't go into the specifics of this play too much without spoiling the overall effect. What I can say, however, is that Hush! Hush! feels perfectly suited to the forty five minute form: evening-filling it is not.  But that is not an accusation: Hill has either made, or has had thrust upon him, the right decision. I never saw John Logan's thematically related play Peter and Alice onstage (it was, by all accounts, a bells-and-whistles production), but the text seemed overblown.

Nohow and contrariwise with Hush! Hush! In one sense it may even seem slight: an anecdote brought to life, or a dramatised documentary. But it's rather more than that. Building on the documentary evidence available, Hill has convicingly caught a mood, or a manner, of what I suppose you could call friendly reticence between the two central characters, mirroring what seems to have existed between Shepard and Milne pere. And when Christopher Milne asks: "Did you like my father?" Shepard's answer feels precisely right.

In Frank Swinnerton's The Georgian Literary Scene there is a fairly full portrait of A.A. Milne (Swinnerton was a friend of his). Swinnerton ends with a memory of Milne, possibly at a country house weekend, waiting, along with an American guest, for another group to return from some expedition. Perched on either side of a fallen tree, apparently no conversation passes between the two, but when everyone is reunited again the American exclaims to his hosts with delight: "You English are so wonderful - you say so much without saying anything!"

And that is what I think works exceptionally well in Hush! Hush! Well, not saying nothing, exactly, but the conversations between Shepard and Milne are both buttoned up and alive with the sense that no more need be said: differently burdened from the same source, in some essential way they already understand each other. Again, I'm reluctant to go into detail for fear of diluting the play's effect, so let's just say that these two men have both had a long time to process the effect of those four famous collaborations between writer and artist. They don't need long, ranting climactic monologues about it - which, as well as being out of character, would make a mockery of the trail which Hill has carefully laid during the play. So listen to it if you can.

Hush! Hush! Whisper Who Dares! will be available on BBC iplayer here for the next 29 days. 

Review of Brian Sibley's radio plays about A.A. Milne plus news of a biopic here

My own doomed Milne-based venture is mentioned during a review of the film Stoned here.

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