Cartoonopolis @ Liverpool Playhouse Studio
‘Welcome to Cartoonopolis,’ the front of Lewis Bray’s Cartoonopolis programme proclaims, ‘a story of two brothers, one family, goodies, baddies and autism’ – in that order. It is exactly this combination that makes the play so important and worthy of a much longer run.
Pick a superlative – any superlative – and Cartoonopolis will take it and raise it by 10. Bray’s account of what it is like to live with his 17-year-old autistic brother, Jack, and the impact the condition has on his family as a whole, is as awe-inspiring, energetic, morally nourishing, sad and downright funny as theatre should ever aspire to be.
What Bray has achieved here is nothing short of remarkable and a giant step forward in the avocation of talking about learning disability. Heavy nods should also go to directors Matt Rutter and Chris Tomlinson for steering a story that may otherwise have spiralled out of control, and to Kay Haynes, whose use of lighting almost deserves a standing ovation of its own.
Bray is an effervescent ball of energy, swapping from cartoon character to cartoon character – some of which you will recognise, some you won’t – with the effortless ease of a seasoned thespian. Cartoonopolis is clearly a labour of love: his entire focus is on the performance and the importance of communicating Jack’s story. Not only does he brilliantly depict the fantasy world that Jack has created at the foot of the family garden as a coping, communicative mechanism, but also the real world cares, worries and downright fears of his mother, the Les Dawson-esque pastiche that is Bev, and Nige, his super-laidback, “stop stressing, it’ll all be okay” father.
It is when Bray slips into their roles that the play takes on extra substance. This is not Rain Man, nor any film centred around disability you have ever seen – Cartoonopolis explores the reality of life in a manner much more evocative than – and preferable to – the usual sentimental piffle.
Some might say it has taken guts for Bray to have come front and centre to tell such a personal tale. They really shouldn’t. His feelings for Jack are evident in a play that says more about societal hangups than a zillion handouts, talk shows or governmental seminars ever will – and in a much more entertaining, honest and tangible way.
That Bray has had the nous and the nuts to bring Cartoonopolis to the stage – with the full support of the Everyman & Playhouse Ignition Project – isn’t brave, it's inspired; and it marks him as a playwright and actor to watch.