Straight out of drama school, Jac Yarrow is about to play Joseph at the London Palladium. He tells Tim Bano about pursuing his dream of West End stardom since appearing in a school Christmas show aged five
Jac Yarrow is sitting in the biggest dressing room in London’s Palladium, huge sofas along one side and a massive widescreen TV opposite. “It’s all downhill from here,” he jokes.
Four months ago, he left drama school after landing the lead role in a colossal new production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the first collaboration between Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice 50 years ago.
In a few days, he will perform alongside Jason Donovan and Sheridan Smith, in front of 2,000 audience members every night. “This used to be Judy Garland’s dressing room,” he says with a grin. “I was going to have a different one, but Jason wanted more natural light, so I lucked out.”
Yarrow is excited, appreciative and very much dedicated to the role. But he shows absolutely no sign of being nervous. “I know that when we come to do a show in front of the audience the first time I will feel nervous. Right now I don’t.” Right now, it’s clear, he’s loving every single second.
That’s mainly because it’s what he has always wanted to do right from the moment, aged five, he stood on stage in a school Christmas show in his hometown of Cardiff. “I loved it. I just thought it was so much fun. I could see the audience looking at me and I was like ‘I can’t get in trouble up here. They’re all looking at me and I can do what I want.’ ”
A trip to the Dominion a few years later to see We Will Rock You cemented the dream; sitting on a booster seat, watching the spectacle, he says: “I remember thinking: ‘This is incredible. I’ve never seen anything of this scale.’ That was the moment I knew I wanted to move to London. I wanted to be in the West End.”
Despite “bubbly, big personalities”, there’s no professional performance experience in his family. But pretty much as soon as Yarrow got home from his trip to London, he started working methodically towards a career in performing arts. “I sat at my desk in my bedroom on my old-fashioned laptop trying to download the audition forms for Billy Elliot. I never actually sent it off. I think my parents were like: ‘Maybe you’re not good enough at ballet to be Billy.’ ”
He began to research performing arts courses in London, but couldn’t afford them, so stayed in Cardiff to do a BTec in musical theatre before getting into Arts Educational Schools London in 2016. He’s full of praise for the school: “It nailed every element of training. I feel so prepared going into the show.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
When I was in sixth form, I worked in a pub, and I used to do filing at my mum’s school.
What was your first professional theatre job?
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Just to chill out. This is a huge deal and it’s such a big responsibility. I have to work extremely hard but within that there’s so much room to just enjoy it. To just have a laugh and enjoy the process rather than be stressed the need to be perfect.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Ramin Karimloo and Audra McDonald.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I make a lot of my entrances sub stage through the lift. And downstairs buried in the wall are the ashes of Bruce Forsyth. And there’s a big blue plaque on the wall that says “Here lies Bruce Forsyth”, so I just give Brucie a little kiss on the way past every time.
Joseph’s director Laurence Connor has form with big musicals, having directed the new versions of Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon, as well as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock. One of the big differences about this new production is that Joseph dances. Again, ArtsEd was useful. “I’d never danced a step before going to ArtsEd. They really pushed me, and at the time I was like: ‘Why are you doing this? I’m so tired.’ But now I’m so grateful.”
But it almost didn’t happen. Yarrow explains that it “wasn’t easy” for his family to afford audition fees and drama school tuition fees. What made it work was when, in his second year, he got a sponsor and a scholarship.
“It was tricky, because it’s not just the audition fee you’re paying: it’s the hotel the night before, the meal when you get up and the train. It does cost a lot of money. Audition fees are ridiculous. I understand that to run a drama school is expensive because you need state-of-the-art facilities and you need to be able to put on the calibre of show that people expect. But surely that should come from the fees because the fees are so sky high.”
He adds: “I think schools are getting better, and ArtsEd in particular is so good at getting money to support someone if they can’t go. I’ve never heard of anyone that had to drop out of ArtsEd because they couldn’t afford it – they’ll dig into their own pocket if they need to.”
In his final year at ArtsEd, Yarrow was cast as Jack Kelly in the musical Newsies. Halfway through the run, West End producer Michael Harrison saw the show, was impressed with Yarrow’s performance and encouraged him to audition for Joseph.
“I thought it was a long shot. But I went in and did three auditions, including an hour-long work session with Laurence. And then I didn’t hear anything for about two weeks. I thought: ‘All right, that’s that then. Never mind.’ ”
Friday, March 11, was Yarrow’s 21st birthday. After a full day at college he was planning to go out and celebrate, but a tip-off from his agent – “He said I might be getting something, but didn’t know what” – made him postpone the plans. At 9pm his agent called and told Yarrow to come to his office right away. “I went there and Michael Harrison phoned me himself and told me I’d got the role. And then we popped the champagne and celebrated.” He had to leave ArtsEd in order to start working straight away with a voice coach and personal trainer. Now he’s days away from the first night of one of the biggest musical openings of the year.
With a couple of exceptions, Yarrow joins an illustrious list of previous Josephs. He insists he isn’t basing his performance on anyone in particular, but that’s partly because, aged 21, he hasn’t heard of many of them. He was decades away from being born when David Daltrey, Gary Bond and Paul Jones starred in early versions of the show. He wasn’t alive for Jason Donovan’s famous performance, nor Phillip Schofield’s or Darren Day’s. He was one when the Donny Osmond film was made (“It’s so cheesy. I love it.”). And he saw a touring production in Cardiff when he was young, but can’t remember who played Joseph, although the process of elimination suggests it was H from Steps.
‘When we go to Egypt for Jason Donovan’s number, it’s one of those moments like the helicopter in Miss Saigon’
But he promises this will be unlike any Joseph we’ve seen before. There’s a new concept for the production, in which Joseph is a product of the children’s imagination. There’s extensive use of the Palladium’s stage lift, which makes Yarrow “feel like a Spice Girl”. There’s a new set and new costumes from Morgan Large. Yarrow reckons: “It’s going to take people’s breath away. You’ll see, especially when we go to Egypt for Jason’s number, it’s one of those moments like the helicopter in Miss Saigon. You just sit back and go ‘wow’.”
Of course, one of the original stars of Joseph, alongside Jason Donovan in 1991, was the white loincloth – but again this production, says Yarrow, is going to be bigger and better. “We’ve got two loincloths. We’ve got the classic, and we have a souped-up golden version.” How does he feel about donning it in front of more than 2,000 people every night? “Honestly, I’m not bothered. Even if I wasn’t in great shape, I’m playing Joseph at the Palladium. I’d do it in the nude if you wanted me to.” Anyway, he reckons, people won’t take that much notice. “If they’re looking at the loincloth then I’m not doing my job properly.”
Amid all the madness of rehearsals, of meeting Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and being in Judy Garland’s dressing room, Yarrow realises it’s important to find time to relax. “It’s quite hard to switch off when we’re teching, but I like to go home, put on a bit of trashy TV and sit with my steamer. Just chill out and decompress.” Sometimes it’s Love Island – “it’s so basic but I love it” – or sometimes a Netflix documentary – “that sends me to sleep”.
And has he been thinking about what might come next? “Not at all. I’m just thinking this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’m fully aware of that. I’m making the most of every single second: of being in this dressing room, being on stage, working with Jason and Sheridan and this amazing cast. And quite honestly, if I didn’t work again after this, I could be like: ‘Do you know what, I did this and it was great.’ ”
Born: 1998, Cardiff
Training: Arts Educational Schools London (2016-19)
• Newsies, ArtsEd (2019)
• Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, London Palladium (2019)
Agent: Jorg Betts Associates
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat runs at the London Palladium until September 8