The wonderful wizard of Oz

Can Bill Bryson's travelogue Down Under work as a one-man stage play? Steve Steen thinks so
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While it's tempting to imagine that the writer Bill Bryson is consumed by wanderlust, his work at least seems to have found a home on the stage. The adaptation of Bryson's best-selling Down Under, about his travels across Australia, is the third in a sequence of sell-out one-man shows based on his novels, by the Comedy Store Player Steve Steen and the writer-director Phil Hodson.

First, it was The Lost Continent (1995), about the trip Bryson took around small-town America in his mother's Chevrolet, then Notes from a Small Island (2001), about Bryson's journey around Britain on public transport. Now comes Down Under, a funny but telling portrait of Australia, covering the Outback and its major cities (apart from Brisbane).

But how does it translate into a one-man show? Cleverly condensed into 1hr 20mins, the play has 56 characters, all played by Steen, with no costume changes, and a set that consists largely of a map of Australia.

"There is so much narrative story and incident, I could have written five plays out of one book, but what I have had to do is select good moments that serve the stage," says Hodson, who has penned episodes of Is Harry on the Boat? and Mile High for Sky One, and several episodes of BBC1's Doctors. He also directed the stage adaptation of Fever Pitch.

Steen is Bryson for most of the play, "but without Bryson's beard and glasses" because he must suddenly take on the posture and demeanour of other characters. "I have tried to make his conversations with other people slightly longer than usual, because otherwise it is only him up there on stage. He'll do things such as take a few paces and say: 'Now I'm in Adelaide' - that sort of thing."

The mood of the play is helped by a good soundtrack, a mix of white folk and Aboriginal music, composed by Steve Wrigley and Rory Cameron, with added sound effects based on animal noises.

Besides Bill Bryson, Steen's repertoire of characters include a young female shop assistant, a steward on the Indian Pacific railway, a school teacher, a man who rents out four-wheel drives for Outback jaunts, a sheep farmer and even a Korean crocodile. "There are about 8,000 words stuffed in my head at any one time, rattling around in there somewhere," says Steen.

How quickly does he switch between characters? "It's instant. I just snap from one to another. That is the secret to keep the pace going. There is an awful lot to get through, so I can't hang about."

Steen began his career as a theatre performer at the Oval House Theatre Club in London in 1972, going on to appear in numerous plays and television series, including Whose Line Is It Anyway? and the most recent series of Bremner, Bird and Fortune on Channel 4. He was at last year's Edinburgh Festival, alongside Stephen Frost, Jim Sweeny, Andy Smart and Richard Vranch, in Stephen Frost's Improv All Stars.

Steen met Bryson when the author attended a performance of The Lost Continent in 1996. "He came up after the show and said, 'I don't remember the book being that funny.' "

'Down Under' tours the country 12 Feb to 29 May (www.thesmp.com)

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