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How Joel Harper-Jackson went from understudy to star in 'COCK'

Joel Harper-Jackson replaced Taron Egerton in 'COCK', and the actor shares how he came to make his debut in a leading role in the West End

Marianka Swain

Marianka Swain

May 5, 2022 11:35

It’s the ultimate understudy dream. Joel Harper-Jackson, who was covering the roles of John and M in Mike Bartlett’s play Cock at the Ambassadors Theatre, has now taken over the latter part fulltime after Taron Egerton left the production for personal reasons.

As a result, Harper-Jackson has scored his first leading role in a West End show — and a seriously buzzy one at that. “It’s been a whirlwind of a month,” an elated and still slightly disbelieving Harper-Jackson said.

Now, he stars in Cock alongside Bridgerton’s Jonathan Bailey. The pair play a gay couple in a long-term relationship, when Bailey’s character, John, finds himself attracted to a woman (Jade Anouka). Completing the quartet is Phil Daniels as John’s dad, and the stylish production is directed by the award-winning Marianne Elliott.

Harper-Jackson has previously starred in numerous musicals, including Kinky Boots, Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, Pieces of String at the Mercury Theatre, and Myth: The Rise and Fall of Orpheus at The Other Palace. He was also Mr Thompson and the movement captain in the UK tour of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

We caught up with Harper-Jackson about serendipitous casting, making the leap from musicals to plays, and why we should treat understudies and covers with greater respect.

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When did you audition for Cock?

It was in October [last year] and I had Covid at the time. I was isolating where I live, on a farm up north. I’d seen the cast announced and messaged my agent, saying “I don’t care what it is but I want to be involved in this somehow.” She said that she’d submit me, and I did my audition tapes and sent them off. Marianne was on Broadway rehearsing Company, and they came back to me and gave me a straight offer! It was all very fast and unexpected. I was hired to understudy both guys – John and M.

What excited you so much about the project?

Mainly it was getting to watch Marianne work, and those amazing actors. I was actually thinking about going to drama school at the time, but this meant I could watch and learn. I told my agent “I probably won’t get on, but it’s good to be in the room.” I hadn’t done any theatre since before Covid.

I’d been in Marianne’s production of Curious Incident, but she was only with us for a day or two then, so I didn’t get much of a chance to work with her. I really wanted to try and cross over into doing more plays.

Is it still difficult to make that transition?

I think it’s getting better – like with Hannah Waddingham recently in Ted Lasso, and her brilliant [Emmy Award] acceptance speech about hiring more musical theatre actors. I think it’s easier in America. They seem to be more open-minded there – we’re more set in our ways. If you do make the transition you have to prove yourself. It can take a bit of time.

How much did you rehearse the part of M before you played it?

From the second week of rehearsals, I was in the room watching everything, taking notes on the characters’ intentions, the blocking. And then maybe twice a week, for two hours in the evening, we would rehearse.

But of course I was covering for both of them, so there was no real chance to sit down and tear the script apart and talk about what we’re doing for each character. It was more like “Stand here, go there” for M, and then going through the blocking as John instead.

There’s a lot to learn in this production, including that stylised movement. Was that challenging?

Fortunately I found the movement parts much quicker to pick up, since that’s my background. I was the movement captain on Curious Incident. I just wanted to do as much scene work as possible on this one.

It’s quite an elusive play in some ways. Did you fill in the gaps in the characters’ lives for yourself?

Yes, you certainly had to do your homework as an understudy, and create your own story. But a lot of it was listening to Marianne too, and feeding that character work into her vision for it. She had a very clear idea of who these people were.

I do remember, when the audition came through, the language was so complex. John was going off on these tangents, and it was all very "bitty," so it didn’t feel easy to learn. I thought “God almighty! I kind of hope I don’t get it.” But of course I’m so glad now.

Talk us through that preview performance in March, when you had to take over from Taron.

It was our very first preview! We probably had about 20 minutes left in the show. The understudies were sat backstage listening over the tannoy, and we heard something go slightly off dialogue wise. We all grabbed our scripts, just in case – it was panic stations.

Then someone came in and said that Taron had collapsed, but he’s OK, he’s being looked over by a paramedic who was in the audience. Then they came back again and said “Would you mind getting your costume on just in case?”. Then another 10 minutes goes by, and then suddenly I’m on stage!

I didn’t have time to be nervous. I went into this very logical mode – you’ve got to just do it. Everyone else backstage was a lot worse than I was with nerves. The audience was so supportive. It was really fun, and it went by in the blink of an eye.

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When were you offered the part fulltime?

Believe it or not, it was on April Fool’s Day! Taron had about two weeks of shows, then he contracted Covid. We were waiting for the green light for him to come back. Then I was sat eating my breakfast, and I got a call from the producer Chris Harper saying that Taron won’t be returning to the production, and we’d love you to take over the role. I burst into tears. It was a crazy, crazy moment – and it just continues to get better.

Had you thought at all that you might get the role?

No, it didn’t really cross my mind. As far as I was aware Taron was coming back. Of course they could have gone with someone else who’s more high profile – people were talking, saying Andrew Scott played M originally. So I was very grateful that they cast me. It shows a lot about their character that they bumped up someone from the company. It’s good for the show, good for the team, good in general for understudies. Hopefully it’ll encourage producers to treat understudies with more respect.

Could you put your own stamp on the role of M once you’d inherited it?

Definitely, I think I’ve brought my own flavour and colour to the part. It did change once I’d taken over fulltime. Marianne said “This is yours now – what do you want to do with it?”

It's a weird situation as an understudy stepping into a part that’s not yours. You’re very much needed; you feel like you’re saving the day. Whereas once the part is yours, that first show you do feel the pressure. Marianne and Chris came to watch and I thought “Right, time to prove yourself now.”

I’m becoming more and more accustomed to it. I try not to put pressure on myself. I know I’m going to be at my best when I let go of everything. All I need to do is work hard and focus on the other actors.

You mentioned that this might help the industry take notice of understudies more. They’ve definitely saved the day again and again during Covid!

Yes, and there are so many people out there who are extraordinarily talented but just haven’t had that moment yet. Jobs are few and far between; everyone simply wants to work. If it’s a good understudy role, they’re going to bite the producer’s hand off. It’s such an overpopulated industry. It’s not surprising that so many theatres are sitting on stars just waiting to happen.

There are so many stories out there, like Kerry Ellis was second cover for Martine McCutcheon in My Fair Lady. She went on with only a few hours’ preparation and had this big break – and Brian May saw her in the show, which led to them working together. Catherine Zeta-Jones was understudying Peggy in 42nd Street and she wound up going on and keeping the part, which is ironic because the show is all about an understudy getting her big break! So you never know.

How did it feel when you saw your name go up on the Cock sign outside the theatre?

If I’m ever having a bad day, I just go outside and look at it! It was mental. I’d hoped one day I’d be in a leading role in the West End, but thought it would be for a musical. In a Mike Barlett play, done by Marianne Elliot? It just keeps on getting more surreal. My parents asked if they can bring [the sign] home!

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What have audiences been like since you’ve taken over from Taron?

The vast majority are really supportive. The only bad stuff is online, like people trying to flog tickets on Twitter and tagging me. But the Twitter mob have come to my rescue. People I meet at the stage door say they couldn’t imagine anyone else doing the part.

Now, it’s crazy that all these incredible people I’ve admired for years – directors, actors, singers – are coming to see it, because it’s such a hot ticket. That’s really exciting.

Photo credit: Joel Harper-Jackson in COCK (Photo by Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)

Originally published on

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