“Shakespeare meets Cirque du Soleil” is how director Matthew Warchus has summed up this outstandingly incompetent adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s fantastical saga, casting considerable slurs on both parties. When it was premiered in Toronto last March, the show met with accusations of an over-long running time, incomprehensibility and tedium. Only the first of these faults has been rectified.

It’s slightly disingenuous of the production team to claim that this stage version of The Lord of the Rings was on the starting blocks before the first film, which appeared in 2001. For the Frodo Baggins of James Loye has exactly the same apple-cheeked demeanour as Elijah Wood without the charm; Malcolm Storry’s Biblical, grey-garbed Gandalf has the same exterior gravity as Ian McKellen, without the twinkle; and the Orcs have the same skull-like heads and scaly costumes as their movie cousins, though we can’t see that until they irritatingly invade the auditorium in the short second intermission.

Most outrageously, the score by A R Rahman, the Finnish folk group Varttina and musical supervisor Christopher Nightingale has the same folksy, ethereal aspirations of Howard Shore’s magnificent cinematic compositions, without an iota of comparable effectiveness or emotional clout. When Laura Michelle Kelly sings lustily in golden chain mail as the elvish Lady of Lothlorien, you cannot understand a syllable and immediately pine for Cate Blanchett’s transfigured apparition on celluloid advising Frodo that “even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”

Instead of the Fellowship coming together after their various adventures to save Middle Earth from the combined forces of wicked wizard Saruman (anonymously played by Brian Protheroe), we just have one damned thing after another with no coherence and no narrative rhyme or reason. There goes a black rider on stilts, here comes a bunch of tree-like Ents on even bigger stilts. The Orcs have arm-stilts, rather like Antony Sher’s scarab-style Richard III. To say the show was completely stilted would be an understatement.

Rob Howell’s design plasters the interior of the theatre with a tangled forest but has no recipe for flying pterodactyls, giant elephants or the sheer excitement of the battle on the plains before Mordor.

Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom are simply magnificent in the movie as the avenging soldiers, Aragorn and Legolas; Jerome Pradon and Michael Rouse are tame cyphers. And Michael Therriault’s slimy Gollum is so busy contorting his limbs into a frenzy that he forgets entirely to suggest the character’s struggle with his inner demon.

There are a few good meteorological effects, and Paul Pyant’s lighting creates some great architectural shapes. Frodo’s trial in the giant spider’s lair is the best of the encounters, but it doesn’t supply anything in his separation from best mate Sam (Peter Howe); the movie, irresistibly, is as much about the fight for friendship as the fight for freedom.

Here, an audience is invited to share in a fight to solve a series of staging problems. And one can only have one of two responses: why did they bother? Or, back to the drawing board.

- Michael Coveney