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Hillbilly music, British style
Skiffle blues in Court Theatre's One Man, Two Guvnors
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2016-05-18

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In the United States—particularly in the Southern mountain regions—it's known as "gutbucket" music, based in Appalachian string-band harmonies ( guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, harmonica ), but frequently augmented by instruments improvised from implements indigenous to the immediate environment.

These may encompass spoons, saw blade, cowbell, duck call, bottle-neck tuba, comb-and-tissue kazoo, washboard-and-thimble percussion, coffee-can drum or just about anything that makes a noise when struck, shaken, rubbed or aspirated.

The English version of this DIY approach to tunesmithery, dubbed "skiffle blues," enjoyed a brief popularity in the years immediately following World War II among young Brits enamored of the visceral working-class country lyrics. Eventually, a recovering economy would enable fledgling troubadours to embrace the electronically amplified sounds of Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis, but for a few years, jazz musician Lonnie Donegan reigned the pop charts with down-home arrangements of Mississippi Delta shouts newly furbished with Anglophile lyrics like "My Old Man's the Dustman."

So how does this cross-cultural hybrid come to be mashed-up with Carlo Goldoni's 1743 Harlequinade, originally titled Il Servitor di Due Padroni, but usually translated The Servant of Two Masters? Simply that One Man, Two Guvnors is author Richard Bean's transposition of the venerable commedia-based comedy to the giddy United Kingdom of 1963, during a period of eroding social traditions giving way to a new vigor as the nation recovered from its recent trauma, while basking in its victory.

The play's plot reflects this cultural upheaval, anchored as it is in the adventures of an enterprising valet working both sides of the hotel at the Brighton resort where the action is set. One of his employers is a foppish gentleman searching for his runaway fiancee, little guessing that she is traveling incognito, disguised as her late brother, and is his newly hired Jeeves' other "guvnor." Add to this mix a rich gangster hoping to marry his daughter off—over the objections of that same damsel's boyfriend—to the aforementioned resurrected sibling of our cross-dressing fugitive, and just for good measure, a West Indian chef, a Latin-spouting lawyer and a lusty female bookkeeper. Can't you already hear the Looney-Tunes sound track?

Grant Olding's original score was performed by a designated four-piece combo, not unlike those that would later evolve into international pop stars like The Beatles, but for the production opening at Court Theatre, director Charlie Newell and musical director Doug Peck have dispensed with the separation between actors and orchestra, not only expediting the swiftness of the action in this speediest of dramatic genres, but to further blur the social distinctions mocked by Goldoni and Bean.

"Before rehearsals began, we asked all the actors what instruments they had ever played, and then proceeded from there," said Peck. "The ones who had no musical training have been very brave about learning new skills."

Videos of the premiere production show the "Craze" quartet equipped with guitars and banjo, with only the inclusion of a washboard percussionist to distinguish them from folkies like the Limeliters. Such street instruments figure in Peck and Newell's aural soundscape, along with tambourines, ukuleles, party whistles, beach-ball tympani, balcony-rail marimba and "jazzy mouth horns." Some of these accouterments are incorporated into the stage set, while others are carried onstage when needed ( "and some chucked out onto the sandy Brighton seaside afterward," Newell added mischievously ).

"The humor," explained Peck, "arises from the spectacle of lofty upper-class snobs—played by classically trained actors whom we are accustomed to seeing in grimly serious roles—cutting loose and having fun with 'found" objects."

The play's roots in commedia mandates audience members participating in the comic hi-jinks, however. Will front-row theatergoers be invited to join in the merriment on, let's say, water-glass xylophone or fanny-spank snapper? Peck shook his head, saying, "We won't be playing any of those," but Newell did not dismiss the idea, stating, "Not yet—but once we're in previews, we'll see what happens."


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