Unity Theatre, Liverpool – until 21 June 2017
Cartoonopolis was first performed in the Playhouse Studio a couple of years ago, where it came into existence thanks to actor Lewis Bray’s involvement with YEP [Young Everyman and Playhouse]. Along with Matt Rutter and Chris Tomlinson, that company’s artistic director and associate director respectively, Bray’s fledgling idea – to do a play about his brother’s autism – began to take flight.
The result is a 90-minute, one-man show that sees Bray take on the roles of his family, their support network, and dozens of cartoon characters from Buzz Lightyear to Fred Flintstone. The show has recently toured the UK and came back to Liverpool for some of its final performances this week.
This is where the ‘toons come in – in real life, Bray’s younger brother Jack has autism, and as a child only learned to communicate through repeat viewings of his favourite animated films and shows – giving him an American accent and some joyously old-school turns of phrase, the kind you don’t usually hear in Wirral at any rate. Those characters and the worlds they live in provide a comfort and escape for young Jack as he tries to navigate the much more confusing real world.
And so, Cartoonopolis; almost part Who Framed Roger Rabbit, part Joe Egg, it creates a vivid fantasy adventure alongside the more dramatic challenges faced by a family caring for someone with a learning disability. It is funny and fantastical, yet incredibly moving and real.
It’s a demanding slog for any performer, but Bray’s energetic and empathetic stage presence, together with the sharp eye of the show’s directors, prove a winning combination.
Matt Rutter is a co-founder of Liverpool theatre company Big Wow, and brings their recognisable, prop-free, multi-character quick-changes to the mix, creating a fast-paced adventure in a recognisable, relatable world. It takes a talented actor to keep up.
As Lewis follows Jack into his adventures in Cartoonopolis, flying around and catching baddies, their parents Bev and Nige tackle the day-to-day routine, from making sure sandwiches are cut the right way, to helping Jack deal when his normal driver doesn’t turn up.
There are big laughs – a comedy scene in the hospital is an hilarious highlight – and incredibly tender moments too; despite playing members of his own family on stage, Bray does not chicken out of telling the whole story. His characterisations of his parents are funny and larger-than-life, but also incredibly mature for such a young actor – in one scene Bev and Nige confront the reality of who will look after Jack once they are no longer around.
Cartoonopolis is a brave show with tonnes of heart. It’s a love letter to Lewis Bray’s unconventional, yet delightful family that spreads a message of tolerance and understanding of those who see the world a little differently. On another level, it’s simply great entertainment, too – and a very fine, and memorable, Liverpool play.