"Side Man" concerns a group of jazz musicians from the 1950s, when jazz was having its heyday, through to their dark years in the 1980s. During this period jazz musicians struggled to make a living having to cobble together a mix of club dates and sign for unemployment cheques. The obsession of jazz would put financial and emotional strain on their life.
The story focuses on Clifford, the son of a 'Side Man'. Clifford partially narrates the story from before he was born to the present day. He explains the passions of the jazz musicians and how his dad first met his mother. His mother was a young naive girl who was driven to alcoholism because of her husband's obsession with his music. Clifford's dad seems oblivious to any thing around him other than his need to play jazz. His trumpet is his closest friend. Clifford is stuck in the middle of his parent's destruction, loving and trying to help both.
Warren Leight's autobiographical play is well written and very touching. It does start a little slow, but the second act is powerful theatre as the effect of the men's obsession takes hold.
There are two exceptional performances in this play. The first is by Frank Wood, as 'Gene', Clifford's dad. He has to play a character that does not have a big presence on stage in terms of being dominant, yet his character is central to the play. He convincingly portrays the character with no emotion, and yet still grabs the emotional tag of the audience. The second is by Edie Falco, who plays 'Terry', Gene's wife. Her performance of a happy innocent young woman driven to drink and despair is phenomenal. The transformation is so great you would not believe it was the same actress. The other cast members also produce convincing performances, including Jason Priestley (Clifford), who is best known for starring in the TV series "Beverly Hills 90210", who displays a fine acting talent.
It is very hard at the end of the play to decide whom to feel the most compassion for. Gene, for failing to notice that his passion for jazz is slowly destroying his life and marriage. Terry, for her 'almost' obsessive love for Gene that keeps her in a neglected relationship that is driving her to the nut house, or Clifford, the son who has to witness the ruin of both parents.
The play has received mixed notices from the popular press: NICHOLAS DE JONGH was not too impressed saying "Michael Mayer's slow-winded production cannot draw the plays humorous, marital and musical elements into a single dramatic whole." CHARLES SPENCER of THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "There is no doubt that Side Man is a work of great heart." And goes on to say "For all the desolation, you leave the theatre with a spring in your step." ROBERT HEWISON of THE SUNDAY TIMES said he was "disappointed by the play's lack of passion" and described the play as, "Not so much hot jazz as soft soap." PETER HEPPLE of THE STAGE says it is "Immensely enjoyable" and remarks, "There is a striking performance from Edie Falco."
I hope I have not made this play sound too heavy because it is not. There are many light and funny moments and colourful characters mixed with a powerful story. A very good play indeed!!