... For the next two nights, the recently refurbished Unity Theatre on Hope Place in Liverpool city centre will be transformed into a fantastic world occupied by humans – well, ‘two’ of them – and a whole host of cartoon characters.
Tonight sees the return of Lewis Bray’s critically acclaimed, one-man play Cartoonopolis, following a hugely successful tour which has taken in cities and towns such as Edinburgh, Nottingham and Bristol en route back to its home city.
The play covers the heart warming – and times heart wrenching – tale of Lewis’ brother, Jack, who has severe autism. In order to cope with everyday life, Jack has created a fantasy world at the foot of his garden in which reside some of his favourite characters … and the evil Mayor Sharp.
The play also examines the effect Jack’s autism has on the Bray family, with Lewis playing the parts not only of Jack but also those of his mum, dad, teacher, carer and driver. It’s a play that’s brim full of zip and energy – but also breathing space in which to reflect upon appreciating those with autism more closely – which first appeared at The Liverpool Playhouse Studio back in February 2015.
“The tour has been just wonderful and we’ve managed to meet so many different people along the way,” Lewis said as he prepared for the performances at The Unity. “We’ve met lots of audience members who have been really supportive and kind about Cartoonopolis, but the most important have been those who are either directly or indirectly affected by autism. Many have actually come up and said thank you for putting such a positive light onto the condition and have recognised many of the traits Jack has with their own experiences.”
"If The Unity didn’t take chances on local companies and encourage local talented actors and writers, myself and many others wouldn’t be doing what we are today." Lewis Bray, Cartoonopolis“For instance, there was one family in St Helens who brought along their autistic son. He, like Jack, affected an American accent and was also into cartoons and drawing. All we could here back stage, though, was him shouting: ‘This show is just like me!’”
“It was one of the stand out moment of the tour. Afterwards, I met with him and his family and he said: ‘You know what … you’ve painted my life,’ which was a truly magical moment. If the show helps just one person understand the world in which people with autism live – and understand what those who live and care for them live with – then it’ll have been successful. We have to recognise that everybody is different in their own way.”
In order to create Jack for the stage and to inhabit the world in which Jack lives, Lewis has to delve deep and take on a different perspective and insight of his own. Having also written Cartoonopolis, this proved something of a learning curve in its own right. “The biggest thing I’ve learned throughout this process is to be more compassionate and understanding of other people. That we must take our time with people who have autism because actually that’s all many of them need, along with a little more understanding.”
“There are a lot of people who remain ignorant of what autism is, but that needs to change if those with it are to be understood. We all need to stop being so judgemental of each other. Not just of those with autism or other disabilities, but in general.” Lewis is on stage for 90 minutes and rarely, if ever, does he stop running around. It is a physically demanding role, yes, but also one in which he delivers a whole plethora of characters which makes it emotionally draining as well.
“It is tiring, but I get so lost in it. The first ten minutes are always quite nerve wracking but then I blink and it all just seems to come together. Somebody mentioned when we were in Cockermouth recently that I just seemed to enter this little world and don’t come out until the end. That’s what it’s like. It is utter bliss for me to do this, even though there are emotional parts that makes it hard on a personal level and particularly in the second Act. Some of these feel very real and very raw.”
“As an actor, though, you have to detach yourself or else you’d be in bits because I am looking at the world through Jack’s eyes and those of my mum and dad. Being able to perform Cartoonopolis, being able to speak to people and hopefully help them learn from it totally outweighs any feeling of tiredness though.” Although Arts Council England and Awesome Liverpool kindly partially financed the tour, there remained a shortfall in funding. To find the extra – and following much deliberation – Lewis turned to the public.
“To secure Arts Council funding, we needed to raise a percentage of the necessary funds ourselves,” Lewis explained. “You need to show your determination, if you like, and our target was £1,500.”
“I was really reluctant to do a crowd funder because everybody seems to do them. There’s also the fact that I’ve seen some really good projects fail because they have tried to get them financed through crowd funding activities. They can make or break a project and I admit I was frightened to do it until all other options were used up. I was finally left with little alternative, though, and I have to say that when Jack and I did the video asking for funds that I’ve never been so nervous in my life!”
“When we put the video on line, it just blew up. It was like it was when we first staged Cartoonopolis back in 2015 back at The Playhouse Studio, with the enthusiasm and love people were showing for the play. The video actually went viral on Go Fund Me site, to the point where they phoned me because it was trending and wanted to know more about it.”
“Loads of different people donated, including David Morrissey. It was just wonderful and I’d just like to take this opportunity to thank Liverpool and its people for backing me and believing in this project. We hit our target figure within 12 hours of the video going live, but there is no way I’d be able to do a tour of Cartoonopolis without the help and support of the people of Liverpool.”
Two nights, starting tonight, lay ahead of Lewis at The Unity Theatre. A place Lewis knows well, despite its recent facelift. “I can’t wait,” he grinned. “So many people have been inspired to act by what they’ve seen at The Unity down the years, it’s a real privilege to bring Cartoonopolis here.”
“I saw Big Wow there and watching them improvise and multi-role became the seed of what this show is. If The Unity didn’t take chances on local companies and encourage local talented actors and writers, myself and many others wouldn’t be doing what we are today. I cannot tell you how excited about playing in front of a Liverpool audience again. They’re loud and excitable and I just absolutely love it.”
Like with many actors, Lewis started out in school. “I was in the cathedral choir when I was young, then moved back to the Wirral. I wasn’t doing any singing at that point and then the school announced auditions for a production of Oliver. I thought, well, let’s give it a go and went along. I’ve always had problems with my weight and, after the audition, the teacher said I had the voice of Oliver but not the body; not in a nasty way but because of my high-pitched voice. So instead of Oliver, I got that part of Mr Bumble the Bede.”
“Because of the strength you have to use in getting the words of the songs and orders out there, plus the fact I was so excited, on the first night I sort of over egged the pudding and on the second night totally lost my voice by the time my big number Boy For Sale, came around. I was absolutely inconsolable. The show must go on though, so the next night they brought our History teacher in because he was in the local amateur operatics society and he sang the song while I mimed it! It brought the house down and, from that moment, I was absolutely sold on acting.”
So what can an audience expect from Cartoonopolis? “It’s a little bit different now to what it was in 2015, particularly in the second Act. It’s still a fast paced, honest and very real account of what it is like to live with and around autism; a truthful and unglamourised account of an ordinary family trying their best to look after their son and brother who happens to be autistic; a portrayal of theirs and his hopes and fears."
"It’s a fun and funny show that’ll warm your heart. But above all it is a genuine insight into that world which Jack inhabits. It isn’t a play about autism, per se, but instead is a play about Jack who is a real person with autism and who has his own personality. Jack’s as talented in his own way as anybody I know. He and many others with autism, just need to be treated a bit differently for that talent to really be able to shine.”
Cartoonopolis is at Unity Theatre, Hope Place, Liverpool June 20-June 21. Click here for Tickets
This article was first published on Purple Revolver and is reproduced here by kind permission - you can view the original article here