Actor Craig Purnell may not be a household name but, judging by the response he received in this year's Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers' Choice Awards, he could well be before long.

Purnell stunned many, not least himself, when he was first nominated and then went on to win in not one but two awards categories - Best Actor in a Musical and Best Supporting Performance in a Musical - beating off, with thousands of votes in his support, big stage names such as Brent Barrett, Paul Keating, Jonathan Pryce, Nicholas Le Prevost and his own Secret Garden co-star Philip Quast.

Those who've followed Purnell's career closely, however, may have felt that the recognition was overdue. Over the past several years, the actor has built up an impressive list of musical theatre credits. In the West End, those have included Oliver, Oklahoma, Martin Guerre and, last year, the RSC's The Secret Garden, in which his turn as sprightly Yorkshire lad Dickon won him the Best Supporting Performance award in the Whatsonstage.com vote.

He has also consistently done acclaimed work at London's respected "new musical laboratory", the Bridewell Theatre, where his productions have included Floyd Collins and Songs for a New World, for which he was recognised with the Best Actor in a Musical award. Purnell has returned regularly, too, to the Leicester Haymarket Theatre in productions of Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George and, this past Christmas, in the musical adaptation of Peter Pan.


Date & place of birth
Born 18 March 1972 in Bristol.

Lives now in...
Wembley, north London.

Trained at...
I'd like to give full credit first to the ten years I spent with the Bristol Opera Company and Youth Theatre, working with Sally Noble and Chris Northam. My parents couldn't afford to send me to drama school so, after my GCSEs, I worked for two years selling insurance - pensions actually - to save up for school. Then I attended Mountview in Crouch End, north London.

First big break
There hasn't been one big break yet, but I have been very lucky to turn some negatives into positives. Like I said, I couldn't afford drama school so in addition to the two years in insurance, while studying, I worked part-time at a baker's and in a pub and I also put myself forward for various scholarships. There were often very influential people on the panels for the scholarships. One person was Howard Harrison. He was later talking to George Stiles and Anthony Drewe who couldn't find anyone to play the ugly duckling in their new musical Honk! so Howard recommended me. While still in drama school, I did that original production at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury and a lot of important people came down to see it - including Cameron Mackintosh, Andrew Lloyd Webber and the RSC's casting director - which led to other things later.

Career highlights to date
They've all been highlights. I've done four productions so far at the Bridewell and I've really enjoyed that. It's fantastic discovering new musicals, even if they may not be as commercially viable as some other productions. In addition to Songs for a New World there, Floyd Collins (European premiere, 1999) was a real highlight.

Favourite co-star
That's difficult. You create such a strong relationship with everyone you perform with - you have to in order to work so intimately with someone. I did particularly enjoy working with Hugh Jackman on Oklahoma!. I learnt so much from him about professionalism. He looked great, sang great and the guy can act as well. I remember watching one scene with him and Josefina Gabrielle - he really moved me.

Favourite directors
I've worked with so many - Sam Mendes, Trevor Nunn, Adrian Noble. I can't pick a favourite. I also have a very special working relationship with Paul Kerryson at the Leicester Haymarket and Clive Paget at the Bridewell.

Favourite choreographers
Matthew Bourne, Bob Avian, Susan Stroman, Gillian Lynne - they're all amazing. Gillian was so involved with me in The Secret Garden, we created a new visual vocabulary for Dickon. I remember, when I auditioned for the part at Sadler's Wells, I was seen in the Gillian Lynne room - I mean, the woman's a legend. And Susan Stroman is an absolute genius. She hired the most talented people, then took the best of what everyone had to give and amassed it into one piece to create the full effect in Oklahoma!. Sam Spencer-Lane (Songs for a New World) and David Needham (Peter Pan) almost certainly have to be added to that list.

Favourite musical writers
I'd have to say Rodgers and Hammerstein. Everything is so clear. As an actor, it's very easy to piece their musicals together.

What role would you most like to play still?
I used to want to do all the standard 'big' West End roles - Jean in Les Mis, Chris in Miss Saigon. But I don't have any ambition to play a specific role like that anymore. I'm not overly interested in committing myself to long-running musicals. What I enjoy is creating a character and having the responsibility of really influencing a new production - whether that's a fresh reworking of a piece or a brand new musical.

There's been a lot of talk about the perilous state of new musical theatre in this country - do you think there's a crisis &, if so, why?
As the Bridewell has shown with its premieres of American musicals, there's some great talent coming out of the US. As far as this country goes, though, I can't honestly think of anything recently except for Honk! (which went on to win the 2000 Olivier award for Best Musical). I don't know if that's because there isn't the talent around or maybe that they're daunted by the monumental task of finding a producer, mounting a musical and getting it seen by the right people. It does worry me that the material doesn't seem to be coming through, but there must be good musical writers out there.

What advice would you give to the government to secure & maintain the future of British theatre overall?
It's got to be cheaper seats. The West End in particular has just completely overpriced itself. People like my own family can't afford it - especially when you figure in the costs of travel to London and then, once you get into a theatre, the overpriced drinks, ice cream, programmes and everything. When you have to pay out so much, it really becomes an elitist entertainment and, even for people who can afford it, the cost must discourage frequency of theatre visits.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
Robert Lindsay. I think he's a fantastic performer. He can do everything well - he's great in the classics as well as sitcoms, musicals, whatever. As far as I'm concerned, he's the man on the hill, although I don't know whether I'd want his whole life.

Favourite book
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by CS Lewis.

Favourite holiday destination
I don't have a favourite. The last holiday I took was to Denmark.

Favourite joke
I can't think of one favourite, although I do like to keep as much comedy in my life as possible. Life's difficult enough, you have to look at the funny side of everything if you can.

If you hadn't become involved with theatre, what would you have done professionally?
Something in the caring profession, maybe a drugs counsellor. I come from a very working class area of Bristol and, from my background, I've seen a lot of my friends and other people I've been close to who've taken a wrong turn in life. I'd like to help people like that, do something for someone else. I do find this business is quite selfish at times. Maybe counselling is something I could do in the future, too. Who knows.

What was your reaction to being nominated in the Whatsonstage.com Awards?
I was amazed. I found out when I was in Leicester where I was playing Captain Hook in Peter Pan. It was the morning after the opening night and I was pretty hungover when I got a call from the Bridewell saying I'd been nominated for Best Actor in a Musical for Songs for a New World. We were all over the moon about that, especially since the Bridewell got five nominations in total. I didn't have access to a computer at the time, but later when I was on the phone to my agent, she logged on and told me I'd been nominated a second time for The Secret Garden. I was shocked.

Were you surprised at the number of nominations for the Bridewell?
Not really, but I am very happy for them and I'm glad that I've been able to win them one for Songs for a New World. The Bridewell is a very special place. From nothing in 1994, they've really established themselves as the place for new, challenging and exciting musical theatre. They deserve recognition for that.

Were you surprised when you went on to win not just in one but in both of the categories you were nominated in?
I felt extremely privileged just to be nominated, especially when you look at the other nominees - there's so much prestigious talent there. Then when I won, I have to admit I was completely shocked. But also very very pleased. Over the past several years, I've really worked my way up from the bottom in this profession, from being a member of the ensemble, to playing lots of different bit characters to getting some larger roles. Now people seem to be acknowledging that hard work and it's the people who really count - the paying theatre-going public. It's a great honour. Thank you.

You obviously have a big following - did you realise that?
Since The Secret Garden, there's been a real shift in terms of people recognising me and I have started to notice that more. There are these American ladies who set up a fan website after seeing the show and I now receive emails and letters from all over the world including quite a few from America, where I've never even been. There's also this group of ladies who started coming along to see me, all wearing T-shirt's that say "Craig's Girls". When they came to Songs for a New World, they were lined up in the front row and I was so startled that, during one scene where I was meant to be spinning a basketball on my finger, I dropped the ball and had to cover up. It's very odd for me to say that I have a following - as far as I'm concerned, I'm still just Craig, the Bristol boy come up to London - but it seems to be true and it's lovely.

What are your plans for the future?
There are lots of things in the pipeline, including maybe a one-man musical - if that's possible - and possibly an album.

- Craig Purnell was speaking to Terri Paddock


Click here to view the full list of winners and nominees from the 2002 Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers' Choice Awards.