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Cock's Joel Harper-Jackson on stepping into the lead role after Taron Egerton's exit: 'It has been a lot'

Exclusive: Attitude speaks to the actor about taking over from Taron Egerton in the West End revival of Mike Bartlett's play.

2022-05-06

Words: Alastair James; pictures: Matt Crockett

Joel Harper-Jackson might possibly be living the dream right now. After landing the no doubt much-coveted role as the understudy to both Taron Egerton and Jonathan Bailey in the West End revival of Cock, he has subsequently gone on to take over the role of 'M', one of the show's leads. 

This followed Egerton's departure in April for "personal reasons", as well as also Joel having to jump into the same role in the last 20 minutes of the show's very first preview after the Rocketman actor fainted.

Joel Harper-Jackson (Photo: Matt Crockett)

And all of this came along just as he was preparing to go to drama school; something which seems remarkable given his masterful performance. He's also been told, which he relays to me, by director Marianne Elliott that he's getting the best learning he could want, the old-fashioned way - on the job. 

It's hard to look away from Joel as 'M', who more than proves a match for Bailey as the two play a gay couple desperately trying to figure out what and who they are to one another. He's fiery yet sensitive as he uses bravado to mask his character's pain. 

Sitting down with Attitude following one mid-week matinee in April Joel reflects on the audience's role within the four-person show. 

"Every single day, there's something new, something different. The audience is certainly the fifth character. If they're on board, sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't. They were a little quiet today.

"I've learned if I don't feel like I had like the best show, it's not the end of the world. Some are better than others."

Joel Harper-Jackson (Photo: Alex Wooley)

Generally, stepping into the role of 'M' has been amazing, Joel tells me. "It has been a lot," he also admits. His agents were divided over whether he should take it as he hasn't understudied in seven years.

"I was like, yeah but look at the team I'm working with. It's been a real shock to the system."

Working with Marianne Elliott (and Jonathan) is a dream come true, which isn't hard to believe.

Speaking of the director who gave us the award-winning revival of Company a couple of years ago (which also starred Bailey) he recounts having done a show with her before but not getting to spend much time with her. Here, though, Joel gets to experience her completely.

"She's so detailed. She's so colossal, a giant in the theatre world. You think, 'Oh, God I'm gonna be nervous!' [But] she's so unassuming and really relaxed. You forget that she's Marianne Elliott who’s won Tonys and Oliviers because she's just so fun. She creates the perfect rehearsal room environment because you instantly feel safe. She's incredible."

Jonathan Bailey and Joel Harper-Jackson (Photo: Matt Crockett)

And pretending to be in love with Jonathan Bailey can't be too hard, surely?

"Well, I mean, he's okay. Haha! He's the most professional, lovely lad. We got on really well. He's really generous on stage. Never in a million years did I think that this would be happening, to be developing an onstage relationship. But I can just remember watching him in rehearsals, he's so generous with all the other actors, and really just kind and takes his time. So yes, to answer the question, it's very easy."

As an actor with a strong background in musical theatre, Joel is more used to performing in larger theatres where there can be a noticeable distance between performer and audience member.

Whereas with Cock, playing at the intimately sized and ever-so slightly cramped Ambassadors Theatre, even in the Circle seats, you feel like you're almost onstage making Joel's characterisation of the audience as the fifth character quite apt.

Joel says, "Every single show I've ever done because I'm singing, I've got to be much more delicate with the voice. It's been a real challenge to understand how to still have the intimacy of the moment so that someone in the back row can hear what I'm saying. I think it's a completely different feeling.

"Plays are so much more detailed, especially Marianne’s because every single show she wants you to action and understand every single word. So, I'd say plays are a lot more thorough and layered, and detailed and juicy."

Joel Harper-Jackson (Photo: Alex Wooley)

In the performances where Joel doesn't feel he's getting enough energy from the audience, his solution is to focus on Jonathan (of 'Johnny' as he casually calls the Bridgerton heartthrob). 

"Eventually, when you do that, the audience starts to perk up. Because you're not you're not forcing something. It doesn't feel contrived."

Having seen the play I'm keen to know more about what it's like being an understudy and having to run on at a moment's notice. During the first preview, Taron fainted towards the end of the show. Meanwhile, the understudies were all sat backstage. 

"We heard something happen," Joel recounts. "And 10 minutes later, someone from backstage came into our dressing room and said 'Taron fainted, he’s okay, he’s been checked over by a paramedic'. I was like, okay, it's fine.

"Ten minutes later, they came in again, and said, 'do you mind getting into your costume?' I was like, okay, it'll be fine. And then they come in again and say, okay, 'we’d like to put you on', Taron’s fine, and then it was 'we'd like you to go on with the script'.

"So I took it on stage, and then just put it down just because it was getting in the way. And then the rest is a bit of a blur."

Joel Harper-Jackson (Photo: Headshot Box)

I suggest it's the kind of situation where if someone had told Joel at the start of the night that he'd be rushing on with 20 minutes till the end of the show he'd have had more time to think about it and maybe the nerves would have kicked in. But as it was, Joel just had to get on and do it. 

"I'm not gonna lie it was hard. Everyone was panicking more than I did, and I was just like let's just go on and do it."

It's definitely an unenviable position to have been in, but as it is, it's worked out rather well for Joel. Of course, not ideal for Taron it must be said, but he was able to make light of the incident afterward

Joels' story also opened my eyes to the life of an understudy. One of his fellow understudies has likened the job to be a fire bucket - "We hope it's never going to be used. But it's necessary."

Cock fundamentally is a play about identity. Hailed as "ahead of its time" when it debuted in London in 2009, it takes on a perhaps greater significance in 2022, when there is much more discussion over the subject. 

In the play, 'John' (Jonathan) meets 'W' and finds himself caught between her and 'M' (Harper-Jackson)

Joel agrees that things between 'M' and John are definitely confused.

"He ['M'] understands that there are men who like both, and that there's such a wide spectrum of sexuality. But I think he's so hurt, he feels betrayed by John because he thinks their relationship has been a lie."

"My view is, I think hopefully, there'll come a time where people don't need to put a label on things, I think it kind of limits you. I hope that the generation that's coming through there's no need for coming out. Hopefully, people can just be people."

Joel Harper-Jackson (Photo: Alex Wooley)

Joel identifies as a gay man but concedes that as time's gone on and discussions have happened it's less black and white for him, as it is for many.

"I want a relationship with a man, I want to spend the rest of my life with a man but do I say that it's only men sexually? Not completely. So does that mean that I am gay? I don't know..."

As we approach the end of our chat, a few patrons of the bar we're sitting in congratulate Joel on his performance. He politely thanks them with an abashed smile. Utterly charming. 

"Are you getting more of that?" I ask.

"Yeah, it's very strange. I just kind of smile."