'PopStar! The Musical' - 2010

Whether you like talent shows or reality television is neither here nor there.

More importantly, if you like a good laugh and entertaining night out, then Popstar! The Musical is for you.

In fact, if you love X Factor or Big Brother, this show is a perfect antidote while they are off the air.

But you also have no excuse if you hate the reality genre because the whole production takes a gentle poke at what has become one of the entertainment sensations of the modern era.

Peppered with well-known stars and faces, the show is a mix of sketches in the style of Big Brother and the X Factor curled up nicely with well-known pop songs.

It's hard to pick any particular stand-out performance because quite simply everyone was good.

Blue star Antony Costa as the timid Cal, Sarah Jane Buckley as kind-hearted Gina, Ciara Janson as airhead Ellie, Rob McVeigh as Jamie, former EastEnder John Altman – Nick Cotton – as Ray and Miranda Wilford as Harriett were just brilliant.

Commanding the stage as master of ceremonies, and bearing an uncanny resemblance in dress and style to a well-known panelist from the X Factor, was Sam Kane as Ricky St Clair.

Originally, the play was called The Extra Factor until Simon Cowell stepped forward and threatened to sue. This led to its closure and re-launch as Popstar! The Musical, with the added tag line "the show they tried to ban".

Reality television shows demand audience participation through voting and raucous cheering and clapping.

Last night at Derby Theatre was no different as the audience was asked to text whom they thought should win the contest.

There was also the chance to sing, dance, cheer and boo to an extent that the audience was in danger of taking over at one stage.

Anyone of a gentle disposition – quite simply, don't go – be warned there is quite appropriately sexual innuendo and swearing aplenty. Buit there are also plenty of laughs and a great night out to be had.

 

 

'Kiss Me Kate' - 2004

 

 

'Bouncers' - 2003

John and 'Coronation Streets' Nigel Pivaro in 'Bouncers'

 

The bad boys of British soap will be out in force in Milton Keynes this month. Katy Lewis caught up with the baddest of them all - John Altman - to find out how he has changed from baddie to bouncer in John Godber's award-winning play.

When I was doing my research for this interview, the piece of information that first caught my eye about John Altman is that unbelievably he is just 51 years old! So the first thing that I had to ask this man, who looks at most about 40, was if this had been a typo, and if not, what his secret was?!

"Yes, it's true" he says. "It's the bucket of vitamins I have every morning" he laughs, before going on to explain that it was really a combination of accident of birth and a positive outlook on life.

Bouncers John Altman and Nigel Pivaro in Bouncers "It's just in my genes" he explains. "My mother looks much younger than she is too. I've not led a life of abstinence that's for sure!"

"It's your outlook on life as well though. It doesn't help if you keep getting all knotted and twisted inside, or go round with a permanent frown on your face."

This is something that he certainly won't be doing at the moment because John is currently appearing in what I think has been one of the funniest plays of recent times. He is portraying Lucky Eric in the national tour of Bouncers, which arrives in Milton Keynes for a week from 8 September.

John Godber's play makes a typical weekend on the tiles come alive as the cast of four play over 40 characters from the smooth-talking DJ and the lager swilling lads to the lip-glossed good time girls ready to dance the night away down at the local club.

first saw this play in the late 80s and thought it hilarious but I was wondering how it translated to the noughties so to speak, and if it was my younger age that made me laugh at it then.

"It does translate very well" says John. "Because what went on then still goes on now."

"There are different costumes of course because there are different fashions now" he continues. "And people seem to be a lot more fuelled up these days as there seems to be many more types of alcohol available."

He cites the deceptively potent (my words - through bitter experience!) Bacardi Breezer which has replaced the Snowball of the 80s.

"The music has also been updated and I think it's also been re-written a bit since the 80s. But this is the definitive version I think."

And despite its subject matter, he goes on to say that it's not just aimed at younger people.

"Everyone can identify with it" he explains, "even my mother could and she's 83!"

"She's been to see it and when we are portraying blokes tanked up on 16 pints of lager and singing 'Here we go, here we go, here we go. She said they're just like that aren't they'!"

"It's a great night out" he continues. "If you're down in the dumps it will cheer you up. It's got a bit of everything. It is also in the Top 100 plays of the 20th century in the survey done by the National Theatre."

John has just completed the highly successful UK tour of Chicago playing Billy Finn. Bouncers couldn't really be more different, but John was attracted by its surprising amount of depth. "'I'd always wanted to see it but I hadn't read the script and didn't think it would have much depth" he explains.

"But there's a lot more to it than I thought - it's not just about the bright lights of the disco. For example, there's my character's monologues where he gives his observations on life and talks about the exploitation of the girls etc.""But it's also very funny" he continues. "You can hear laughter rolling in like waves from the back of the auditorium."

John Altman has had a very diverse and illustrious career on both the stage and screen appearing on TV in programmes such as Black Hearts in Battersea, Minder, Lucky Jim and the Paradise Club as well as being a mod in Quadraphenia, a rebel fighter pilot in Return of the Jedi and having roles in American Werewolf in London, Remembrance and Scarlet Pimpernel to name but a few.

But he is best known for that role in Eastenders. As Nick Cotton, he appeared in the very first episode and has been in and out of it ever since, performing deeds that seemed to get progressively more evil. He has lied, stolen, cheated and murdered and even tried to kill his own mother, as well as being a drug addict, racist and a pimp.

John is starring in Bouncers with another soap bad boy Nigel Pivaro, who has played Jack and Vera Duckworth's wayward son Terry on and off for a number of years. So do they ever argue about who was the baddest - Nick or Terry?

"Not really" he laughs, "but he [Nigel] concedes that I was the worst anyway, because my character has got the highest murder count."

"We have a bit of a tussle in the play as well which the audience really enjoys. Nigel's character is always winding mine up and finally Eric snaps and we end up in a fight where my arm gets broken."

As a soap villain, the character of Nick was pretty irredeemable. But does John get fed up with constantly being asked about that character, when he has done so many other things?

"Not at all" he says. "I was talking about this with Nigel only the other day. We've both been involved with these shows for about 18-20 years and been able to drop in and out of it. But there are some actors who are really talented and never get that opportunity, or end up working on a building site or something."

"I've been lucky and I'm grateful" he continues. "I't's opened other doors for me too - although it's also closed some."

And despite his character having been so diabolical, John doesn't get hassle from the general public, mainly because he takes the time to be friendly.

It is probably this which stops them confusing him with his soap character, something that amazingly some soap viewers do. "It amazed me too a long time ago" he reveals. But after so many years, it is clearly something he has just learnt how to deal with effectively. "I just try to give people a bit of time when they see me" he explains. We last saw Nick leaving the Square on crutches after his latest altercation with Mark Fowler, but will he ever go back?

"The door's been left open" he admits, "but I'd rather do other things to be honest."

He's certainly very busy at the moment, being booked up until Christmas with the Bouncers tour before going into Peter Pan at the Beck Theatre in Hayes. And despite having done so much, there's still a lot that he would like to do.

"I'd like to work in America and I've never done the West End so I'd like to do that" he says. "I've also got a band but I've been on the road for the past two years so that's been on hold."

With such a long acting career, John is well placed to give advice to people just starting out, so what are his tips?

"Turn up on time" he says immediately. "And try to be word perfect on the first day!" "But if you can't do that, get rid of the script as soon as possible so that you can start to enjoy it." And if the cast are enjoying it, I'm sure we'll all enjoy it too!

 

 

'Chicago' - 2001

Nasty Nick Cotton is how he will always be known but John Altman has more than one string to his bow, as the new star of top musical Chicago reveals to Phil Key.

They'd never believe it in Albert Square. Here was EastEnders bad boy Nick Cotton dressed to the nines in a dress suit, wearing a bow-tie - and acting the role of a lawyer.

For those who get real and TV soap life confused, fictional petty criminal Nick is played by actor John Altman in the BBC TV soap opera. And it's Altman who has the lawyer role in a new touring production of the musical Chicago.

It's the current West End production where another TV star, Denise Van Outen, has had a huge success playing accused killer Roxie Hart.

The London production is still pulling in the punters but the touring version with a new cast is about to take to the road, opening at Manchester's Opera House on September 14 and arriving at the Liverpool Empire next March.

Altman gets top billing as the superslick lawyer Billy Flynn while Ms Van Outen's understudy Amra-Faye Wright inherits the Roxie role.

While an all-singing, all-dancing Nick Cotton might be difficult to take, it's not so strange for Altman. "I have been working on the singing over the years but no-one has really known about it, " he tells me in a rehearsal break.

"You know, I have done various musicals, Bill Sikes in Oliver! , Jigger in Carousel and I was Rocko in Oh What a Night, the Kid Creole musical."

He even has his own rock band. "I recently did a concert at the Hammersmith Apollo with Tom Jones and other great rock stars. It's just something I do when I am not in EastEnders. Even when I do pantomime I usually sing a number or two."

Altman also has a vocal coach. "Most singers do and she's very good. If I have an audition for a show where I don't know the music I go along to her and work on a song."

He had to audition for Chicago so went to his coach to work on the number All I Care About Is Love. "It's my opening number, a sort of Busby Berkeley thing surrounded by girls and lots of feathers. I learned that song, went along to the audition and that's how I got the job." Altman is not actually an East Ender.

He was born in Reading, Berkshire, which he admits is "a bit posh". He laughs: "I bluffed my way in."

He was in the first episode of EastEnders in 1985 and remained in it for some years before taking a break. He's been taking breaks from it on and off ever since, always finding other work.

The last break was for three years but he came back last year for another spell.

"Every time I go back in the producers tell me the ratings go up. The last New Year's rating went off the bridge so Nick Cotton is my pension fund.

"Its always nice to go back. I get a big welcome back from people like Wendy and Adam and June, of course. No, I'm not Nick Cotton off the set - I switch it on and off, you know."

As a kid, Altman used to run what he terms a scratch band, learning guitar and drums along the way.

"That musical training came in useful when I became an actor. Early on I joined a rock theatre group in which I had to play guitar and drums and we toured Europe and the UK."

A role in the TV series The Paradise Club found him playing a bass player and early in his career his musical knowledge came in even more useful - playing a Beatle. "I played George in the film Birth of the Beatles and obviously when we played guitars when the soundtrack was played we had to make sure we had the right chord shapes for each Beatle song."

The film was made in 1979, before EastEnders. "It was going to be a feature film but eventually became a television special. It goes out on Sky sometimes when they have a rock night or whatever and occasionally people have come and told me how much they enjoyed the film. It makes a nice change from talking about EastEnders.

"The only problem on that film was that not one of the actors playing the Beatles was a scouser. I listened to some of the Beatles Christmas discs sent to the fans to hear how George spoke and we had the actor Michael Angelis coaching us.

But it ended up a bit too raw and the Americans couldn't understand us. We had to redub the whole film."

There were small roles in big films along the way, a rebel fighter pilot on Return of the Jedi, for example. "If you blink you miss me but it was a treat to work on and meet Mr Vader."

He played a policeman in American Werewolf in London. "I can't remember if I had lines in that as it was so long ago. If I did it was something like, 'Now then, Mr. Werewolf, let's be having you'." Oh yes, he has played many a lawabiding character in hs career - a policeman again in a new film based on the life of celebrity villain Dave Courtney. And his latest TV appearance was as a jolly father in a children's drama Child in the Forest for HTV.

"I don't get typecast but people think of me as villainous because of Nick Cotton. It's just that EastEnders has the biggest profile and is the one people notice."

His role in the Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse musical Chicago should also get him noticed. Originally staged on Broadway in 1975, the show was given a sexy new look by American director Scott Faris who now directs all versions of the musical around the world including the new touring one.

Altman says his character Billy Flynn - the smart lawyer representing Roxie - is simply the best lawyer there is, "like the lawyer who got O.J. Simpson off".

He says Billy's "as honest as an attorney can be. He can bend the truth slightly and put words into people's mouths. But he's a sympathetic role to play and definitely a step up in the world. I get to wear a tuxedo."

 

'Chicago' - Review 2001

by Val Bennion at Manchester Opera House

"Murder, greed, violence, corruption, exploitation, adultery, treachery... all those things we hold near and dear to our hearts." So begins the musical Chicago, and creators John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse never back off from developing their bold and sinister promise.

This promise is fulfilled by danger, razzle-dazzle and humour. It is the kiss-and-tell story of Roxie Hart (Jane Fowler), a nightclub dancer who kills her lover; Velma Kelly (Amra-Faye Wright), a dancing jailbird with an ear for the headlines and an eye for talent; and Billy Flynn (John Altman), a sharp lawyer who turns Roxie into a celebrity. It provides a loving look back at vaudeville, a timely satire on the justice system and, above all, a reminder of how exhilarating musical theatre can be.

It takes a while for this audience to begin responding to the dark humour, but each number is rewarded with warm applause from the start. Fowler, who previously played one of the other Death Row dancers in the London production, is splendid as the lively and funny Roxie. She never stays down for long, and her cheerfulness and optimism become infectious. Wright's Velma, although seemingly hard-bitten and tough, is strangely vulnerable. And a surprise success is Altman, who thankfully keeps his Nick Cotton EastEnders persona well at bay - and he can sing a bit too.

All the individual performances are captivating, with the musical numbers performed with great passion and energy. One of the best is "Cell Block Tango", wonderfully projected by Velma and the girls. One niggle though, the music often resonates too loudly, overpowering those on stage – so tone it down, guys, and let us hear all the words. That said, the musicians play with a gusto that more than matches the dancers and are well orchestrated by Ralph Burns.

John Lea Beatty’s dark, minimalistic set, the subtle lighting from Ken Billington, and the skimpy black costumes of William Ivey Long all contribute richly to the style, sensuality, seductiveness and sleaziness of this Chicago.

The opening of the national UK tour in Manchester brings the number of productions concurrently running around the world to seven. Since opening in London in 1997, rave reviews and sold-out venues galore have followed. This show is now in serious danger of becoming a cult phenomenon. May we yet see the audience dressing up as Roxie, Velma, Billy Flynn or Mama Morton?