Wit at the Vaudeville Theatre

Wit Trend-spotters will note that a number of plays about the Big C seem to be doing the rounds this season. First up was A Lump in my Throat adapted from John Diamond's cancer diaries, then there was Gone to LA at the Hampstead Theatre in February, and now it's the turn of Margaret Edson's off-Broadway smash, Wit, to offer up another perspective on this terrible disease.

Wit does this by taking the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, and their meditations on mortality, and relating them to the personal experiences of a professor of philosophy, Vivian Bearing, who is dying from ovarian cancer.

While the play is ostensibly about a patient coming to terms with personal illness, it is as much an exploration of poetry, punctuation and semantics. In this respect, Wit put me in mind of Copenhagen; what Michael Frayn's play does for nuclear physics, Edson's does for metaphysics, making it accessible and entertaining.

Bearing deals with her affliction is by treating it as an extension of the academic work she loves so much, and which is repeatedly shown in flashbacks throughout the play . Her painful eight-month course of treatment becomes an 'education'; during a ward round she becomes 'the subject of a graduate seminar'; and, finally, her inability to fathom death is akin to being 'unable to answer a question during finals'.

Kathleen Chalfont reprises her Obie-winning performance as the tough, stoical Bearing. Despite being completely hairless and wearing just a hospital gown and red baseball cap, she is a formidable presence on stage, seemingly impenetrable to the countless indignities of cancer treatment, until all hope of remission is lost.

Director Leigh Silverman ably reproduces the original direction by the late Derek Anson Jones, overseeing some confident supporting performances from Jaye Griffiths as the sensitive nurse Susie Monahan, Ed Stoppard as the young oncologist Jason Posner, and Irene Sutcliffe as Bearing's college mentor.

Myung Hee Cho's ingenious stage design emphasises the starkly impersonal nature of hospital, with its white hospital bed-style curtains and gleaming equipment, and this is reinforced by David Van Tieghem's chilling sound design.

This may not be a laugh-a-minute play, but then neither is it overly sentimental or lachrymose in its depiction of death and illness. Edson manages to mingle poignant observations with dry wit and gallows-type humour, but her main achievement comes in the final scene. Unusually, she manages to make Bearing's death seem like a dignified release from this world, rather than a cruel finality.

Richard Forrest