Writer: Paul Birch
Director: Barnaby Eaton Jones
The phrase, ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’ is given new resonance in Paul Birch’s serialized adaptation based on the life of Baron Munchausen as its hero the Brigadier leaps from one rollicking adventure to another across six paid-for episodes. With a rare acting performance from Richard O’Brien and a sustained satirical tone, The Barren Author is a madcap Boys’ Own quest in audio comic book form.
Speaking to the mysterious Smith, the Brigadier plans to write his memoirs and recounts some key episodes for his captive listener. From high jinks in his school days that send him to sea, a stellar scientific career, uncovering an international conspiracy, a spot of cat burglary and plenty of perilous encounters, Smith begins to question the veracity of the Brigadier’s globe-trotting tale. But is anyone what they seem, and why is the Brigadier avoiding the one thing Smith really wants to know?
Structurally, each section is designed to unfold more of the Brigadier’s biography, with an elaborate cliffhanger linking each instalment. Tonally, The Barren Author is very strong, steeped in the derring-do of nineteenth and early twentieth-century adventure stories and the pomposity of a character with very little self-awareness. All of this is consistently retained throughout the six episodes creating momentum as Birch envisages an amazing and unbelievable sequence of events that will please fans of the genre.
Yet, using a verbose narrator to tell this story proves to be a double-edged sword; though enjoyably silly with vivid scenarios and characterisation, the continual embellishment and sheer volume of activities does become a little wearing as the overburdened plot starts to feel aimless when, four episodes and nearly two hours in, everything and nothing has happened. With an eventual running time edging towards three hours, Birch’s drama becomes quite an undertaking for writer, performers and the audience as the grandiosity of the protagonist and an almost unrelenting barrage of crazy events becomes a feat of endurance.
Richard O’Brien does much to keep the listener invested, performing an incredible amount of material and multiple voices almost single-handed across several hours. In his hands the Brigadier is a fully realised swashbuckling hero, or at least that is what he believes. And while O’Brien’s performance is full of zany fun, the increasing wildness of his claims and an undercurrent of paranoia leaves you wondering how much he just needs to be heard and admired.
Sophie Aldred has far less opportunity to form an independent character as Smith, only occasionally interjecting into the Brigadier’s long and eventful monologues. There is some ambiguity about Smith’s true purpose and Aldred plays her with an artlessness that leaves several possibilities open. The constantly moving scenarios are well imagined by sound designer Joseph Fox along with Abigail Fox’s music that transports the audience to all manner of locations in every episode.
Birch has written an entertaining romp with a larger-than-life central figure, but as it reaches the conclusion, the overarching narrative starts to fizzle out. As a binge listen this feels one, perhaps even two, episodes too long but dipping in over a longer period will mean you can savour the extensive world Birch has created and the crazy, unexpected and ludicrous life of The Barren Author.