Like the monster, this play is more than the sum of its parts.

And out of the ovular incubator crawls naked . . . well, it depends on which night you see it. It is either Jonny Lee Miller, less a baby who finds his feet than an electric eel who finds his spine; or Benedict Cumberbatch, from the off a little less wired, a little more graceful. Only critics, instructed to review both turns, need compare, contrast and, let's be honest, mentally tape-measure. Cumberbatch gets more laughs, if sometimes at the expense of making Dr Frankenstein's creature more a retard than a child. Miller is a little scarier, more masculine. They do not offer different interpretations, only subtle gradations.

Both are excellent, so convincing in this opening ten minutes of the writer Nick Dear and the director Danny Boyle's Frankenstein that the sequence doesn't look like self-consciously "physical" theatre. Once you have witnessed the creature's birth pangs and his fallible, accelerated rise to Homo erectus, you never lose your sympathy for him over the next 110 minutes, not even after he has turned arsonist, rapist and killer; not even once the primal, screeching infant turns into garrulous adolescent specialising in me, me, me/why, why, why monologues. He is no more than what happens when a child is deprived of parental love.

You can see why neither star would want to be confined to the role of Victor Frankenstein. This is not a play equally divvied up between creator and creation. The doctor only gets his first real scene 45 minutes in and neither Miller nor Cumberbatch quite manages to make up the lost ground. Certainly, Cumberbatch is better cast in the part: more introvert, further along the autistic spectrum than the hoarse, angry Miller. Dear's writing works overtime to make us understand him: why he prefers to create life mechanically rather than sexually, why he cannot love or indeed touch his beautiful fiancée, Elizabeth; but the questions remain largely unanswered and his disgust at his own creation pretty incomprehensible. As a result, in this adaptation, the monster is the scientist.

Like the creature, it is something of a stitched-together patchwork, but so was Mary Shelley's story, which has three narrators and whose first chapter is a history of Victor F's intellectual development. This version - around the 90th adaptation for stage or screen - begins as a mime show, proceeds as a musical spectacle with a steam train (or is it a carnival?) steaming into town filled with whores and thieves, slows down dangerously into debate and then turns in a gothic horror show with a bedroom surprise that would make the Phantom of the Opera jump. Yet none of its components is in itself ill-judged.

Like Victor's experiment, the whole thing comes to magnificent animation under Boyle's direction and Mark Tildeseley's design. The audience is surrounded by an auditorium clad in grotto stone from above which hangs a giant bell. The huge Olivier stage goes from empty and expressionistic to crowded and detailed in sweeping revolves that accommodate a railway line, Lake Geneva, the Frankenstein family's fine house, a Scottish croft and the arctic wastes. We are frequently swept up, too, in the electronic choral music of Underworld.

In smaller parts, Karl Jonson is touching as the blind professor who teaches the creature Milton; and Naomie Harris, in a built-up part as Elizabeth, shines strongly enough to make her the real foil to both man and beast. But the show belongs to the creature, not just for the award-ready performances but for his speeches, which provide a devastating critique of our species. "Slowly," he tells Elizabeth, “I learned: how to ruin, how to hate, how to debase, how to humiliate. And at the feet of my master, I learnt the highest of human skills, the skill no other creature owns: I finally learned how to lie." Eighty years after Boris Karloff's indelible but speechless creature, Nick Dear has returned to the poor thing his voice. l

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Frankenstein, Olivier Theatre, London SE1

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle