It's amazing to think how many British actors have become stars in Hollywood - quite disproportionate to the size of our island population - and a great deal of the credit for this must surely go to the theatrical roots of most of them. Drama school training in this country is still largely geared towards the disciplines of the stage, and it's on the stage that most actors begin their careers. So, if you want to spot a future Hollywood star, the theatre's where you'll most likely find them.

A Roll Call of Talent

Consider the following roll-call of talents, all of whom were first noticed on stage in the last 20 years: Rupert Everett, Kenneth Branagh, Colin Firth and Daniel Day-Lewis (all of them from their appearances in the stage version of Another Country); Ralph Fiennes (at the RSC); Jeremy Northam (in various productions at the National, including understudying and then taking over from Ian Charleson as Hamlet); Michael Sheen and Kate Winslet at Manchester's Royal Exchange; Emma Thompson in the original production of Me and My Girl; Damian Lewis, Julia Ormond and Minnie Driver (at the Almeida); Rupert Graves (in a Dennis Potter play, Sufficient Carbohydrate, at Hampstead); Jude Law (in a Philip Ridley play at Hampstead); Rufus Sewell (in a James Saunders play, Making it Better, at Hampstead); and Victoria Hamilton (fresh from drama school, in another Saunders play, Retreat, at Richmond's Orange Tree). Note to aspiring stars: you could do worse than start out in a James Saunders play, and/or at Hampstead Theatre!

For those of us who saw these performers' early theatrical work, it's no surprise to find them playing in the major league now, and one of the exciting pleasures of going to the theatre regularly is the constant hope of catching sight of the next shooting star.

Excitement in Triplicate

Broadly speaking, there are indeed three types of excitement when it comes to seeing actors on stage. Going to the theatre for the likes of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith or Michael Gambon, for instance, come with certain expectations built in, invariably repaid by these most consummately professional of performers. This is the excitement of seeing performers you know and love doing precisely what you know and love them for.

Then there are the performances from actors whose work you already know and admire, but who suddenly catapult to a different level in your estimation when they surprise you. Clare Higgins recently achieved this startlingly with Vincent in Brixton, Anita Dobson likewise in Frozen, and Deborah Findlay with Mother Clapp's Molly House (all at the National).

But most exciting of all is being present at the first arrival of a future star: the kind of talents who blaze so brightly that you just know instinctively that, while this may be the first time you're seeing them, it will definitely not be the last. Such was the case when Chiwetel Ejiofor made his demanding debut in the premiere of Joe Penhall's three-hander Blue/Orange at the National; it occurred, too, when Lyndsey Marshal appeared in the minor role of the maid in David Mamet's Boston Marriage at the Donmar Warehouse, taking focus from her starrier counterparts Zoe Wanamaker and Anna Chancellor; when Emily Blunt featured amongst an all-star cast in The Royal Family (and went on to win the Award for London Newcomer of the Year and to be terrific in Vincent in Brixton, too); and right now, when the previously unknown Alison Pargeter made her triple West End debut in three completely different roles in Alan Ayckbourn's Damsels in Distress trilogy at the Duchess.

Case in Point: Alison Pargeter

In a review I wrote of that trilogy for the Sunday Express, I commented, "The astonishing Alison Pargeter goes hilariously from streetwise Estuary moll to insecure actress and then geeky schoolgirl in a series of turns that would individually make her career but now must surely make her a star. Not since Lia Williams was first spied in Ayckbourn's The Revenger's Comedies has there been such an extraordinary new comic discovery." I wasn't the only critic to single her out: in the Daily Telegraph, Charles Spencer concurred that "the delightful Alison Pargeter emerges as a sensational new comic star".

In fact, interviewing the actress a few weeks later, she agrees, Damsels "has put me on the map". But in fact it's been no overnight success story for Pargeter. She left drama school in 1994, and since then, "I've done plenty of fringe, touring, and the odd musical". Even her current success has been slowly earned: "We've been doing these shows for a year and a half now. We originally did them in-the-round in Scarborough, then toured them around the country, before re-rehearsing them for a proscenium production and touring with that, before we officially opened in the West End."

Pargeter says of the director/playwright who has created these roles, "He's given me an entire career in one job! I love the parts I've got!" And she fully appreciates the opportunity: "This may never happen to me again". An unknown cast who have been granted the privilege of taking the show they created to the West End is, she acknowledges, "a great leap of faith in us" - but I doubt Pargeter, for one, will remain unknown for long now. Another star has been born; and the theatre's where you saw her first.

Who have you seen on stage early in their careers and thought: "This person will become a star!" and you have been proved right? Or, of those you've seen recently, who would you tip for future super-stardom? Please feel free to post your comments on the Discussion Forum.