In Good Company: Humunco Theatre

A new company from young playwright Lewis Bray presents its first play, Cartoonopolis, about an imaginary world

Preview by Alecia Marshall | 18 Aug 2014

There are some faces you cannot forget. Frequently to be found onstage or behind it, 23-year-old Lewis Bray is one such face: he's animated, hugely talented and utterly dedicated to his craft. A past member of the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse Young Actors scheme, Bray found his home on the stage at the age of six, and little has changed since. Now the founder of brand new company Humunco Theatre, Bray aims to create theatre that "motivates, entertains and inspires."

Bray meets us at the Playhouse Studio ahead of the preview performance of his first play, Cartoonopolis. With just one hour until showtime, Bray has decided to cut half of one monologue and restructure another. "It’s fine, it’s fine," he repeats, muttering the amended version under his breath.

Written, devised and performed by Bray himself, Cartoonopolis is an autobiographical piece inspired by his experiences of growing up with a severely autistic brother, Jack. A multi-role production that sees Bray play each of his family members in turn, Cartoonopolis invites its audience to view an unfiltered image of the Bray family: gratifyingly comic, often relatable and intensely moving.

A play centred upon Jack has been present in Bray’s head for some years, but Cartoonopolis proved the trigger. "I was working on a different one-man show when Jack told me about Cartoonopolis: an imaginary cartoon world with a population of ten billion – most of them famous cartoon characters – presided over by the evil Mayor Sharp," he says. Devised by Jack as a "place to escape from the madness" of daily life, Bray decided to physicalise Jack’s imaginary city, creating something altogether more tangible, palpable. "I decided that I wanted to put Cartoonopolis into a play. I wanted people to hear his story. I wanted people to understand him."

Responsible for the name ‘Humunco’ ("I asked him what I should call my theatre company and he replied, 'Humunco. Like Humungo, but not,'" says Bray), Jack, who has long adopted a Hollywood-perfect American accent based on those of his cartoon heroes, is his brother’s most ardent fan. "He loves it," smiles Bray.

Discussing Jack’s continued involvement with the devising process of Cartoonopolis, Bray allows Jack a role not unlike that of a co-producer. "He likes to add ideas, which is great because it allows him to be creative and use his voice. That was the initial – and continued – aim of this whole project, to give Jack a voice. I wanted him to be heard as an individual, irrespective of his disability."

Naturally, autism is a topic close to Bray’s heart. When discussing his childhood, he refuses to characterise it as ‘difficult’, instead choosing the word ‘different’. "There was, and are still, challenges, but you work with it. Jack has a sensory disorder which makes it uncomfortable for him to feel things on his skin. As a result, he is often found naked around the house – not ideal when bringing friends over! Yes, it’s hard, but you have to promote love and acceptance."

Using theatre as a platform to explore and inform, Bray is determined to educate audiences about autism in a light-hearted, comic way. "I don’t want to ram the topic down people’s throats but I do want to raise their awareness. Autism is not something to be afraid of, it just needs to be understood."

With plans for Humunco and Cartoonopolis to stick around, Bray is optimistic about the future. "I want to reach a host of audiences. I want Jack to become part of a community that accepts him; I believe Cartoonopolis can make that happen." An admirable and noble artist, Bray deserves every success.

Cartoonopolis runs in the Liverpool Playhouse Studio in September