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Joel Harper-Jackson made his debut as a leading man in London’s West End in dramatic circumstances when Taron Egerton fainted on stage during the first preview of play “Cock.”

Harper-Jackson had signed up as an understudy to both leads, “Rocketman” and “Kingsman” star Egerton and “Bridgerton” actor Jonathan Bailey, and had learned both parts. The understudies, who have their own dressing room, were listening to the stage feed on speakers. But all of a sudden, some 75 minutes into the 105-minute show, “there was a silence, and we were all puzzled as to what was happening,” Harper-Jackson tells Variety.

After some moments of confusion, the understudies were informed that Egerton had fainted, but that he was fine. Yet 10 minutes later, Harper-Jackson was asked to go on stage to replace Egerton as the management felt it was the responsible thing to do. “The audience was completely behind it; it was the most wonderful, warm reaction,” says Harper-Jackson. “And then before you know it, we finished the play. It’s been a real baptism of fire. It was an experience I will never, ever forget — that night.”

Soon after, Egerton had a COVID-related absence and eventually left the play in early April citing personal reasons. Harper-Jackson then took over the role permanently and made it his own.

Written by Mike Bartlett, “Cock” was first staged in 2009 and went on to win an Olivier Award. The 2022 staging, at London’s Ambassadors Theatre, is directed by Marianne Elliott. It centers on a gay protagonist, John (Bailey), who lives with his boyfriend, M (Harper-Jackson). When he finds himself falling for a woman, W (Jade Anouka), he begins questioning his identity and society’s adherence to labels such as “gay,” “bi” and “straight.”

Harper-Jackson has a background in musical theater and the only play he had done was a relatively small role in the touring production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” directed by Elliott, whose work he respects immensely. On that occasion, Elliot was only present for a couple of days, and so “Cock” was an opportunity for the actor to observe the director’s craft more closely.

“I wanted to transition over to more straight acting pieces. [‘Cock’] will probably help with the age-old myth that musical theater actors can’t act, which I thought was absolutely ludicrous,” says Harper-Jackson.

Fortunately for Harper-Jackson, Elliott didn’t have that mindset, having worked with musical theater star Rosalie Craig in the West End revival of Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical “Company,” for which Bailey won an Olivier. “I just wanted to watch and learn,” says Harper-Jackson about working with Elliott and his co-actors.

And there was plenty to learn. Harper-Jackson was used to performing in cavernous spaces across the U.K. with seating capacities of thousands during his musical theater days, where his voice was heard over an orchestra thanks to technology. In contrast, the Ambassadors Theatre has a capacity of 410 seats and is an intimate space where the actor had to learn to project his voice without technological aids.

For “Cock,” the intimacy of the space is complemented by the minimalism of the stage design, which consists of steel panels arranged in a semi-circle and two steel benches, with one of the panels revolving to provide ingress and egress. The actors have no stage props to work with nor any costume changes during the play, which runs straight through without an interval.

Harper-Jackson describes the audience for “Cock” as the “fifth character,” with the actors accustomed to pausing for them frequently during the script’s savagely funny moments, which are numerous. “I absolutely love how intimate the space is — people can see absolutely everything,” says Harper-Jackson. “For me it’s been a joy because I’m used to playing very big houses. This has been a really refreshing change.”

Next up for the actor are some television roles, which are likely to begin in September. Details are under wraps at the moment.

“I’d like to experience all areas of the industry. I think that’s what’s going to make me a better, more rounded performer. I certainly never want to say goodbye to theater, or musical theater,” says Harper-Jackson. “I’m constantly learning and will forever be a work in progress.”

“Cock,” posters of which have been censored on the London Underground, runs through June 4.