Wit (Manchester Royal Exchange)

Julie Hesmondhalgh is superb in this affecting play about cancer

Cancer is the leveller of today: rich or poor, brain or brawn, you can't hide from the big C. In Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Wit, it is one of the foremost authorities on poet John Donne who has been struck. She's a brainiac, used to lording it over her ill-prepared students, whose knowledge of the English writer knows no bounds. But when faced with ovarian cancer and its invasive treatment, even this formidable bulldozer of a woman is reduced to a shadow.

Julie Hesmondhalgh's Vivian Bearing is prickly and direct, a total ball-breaking tutor – the kind to make even the most assured of pupils crumple on the classroom floor. And her approach to her cancer is not much different. Determined to survive, determined to trample it into oblivion with the strength of her will and her mind, Bearing signs up to be a chemo guinea pig: she will undertake eight rounds at full dosage.

Raz Shaw's excellent production is staged in-the-round, on a revolving stage that adds pace and energy to the many flashbacks. Set mainly in the hospital rooms that quickly become Vivian's home, we jump back and forward in time to learn about her past, her work and the way Donne's poetry infuses everything she does.

Donne's poetry is also woven within the lines of the play: in Vivian's lessons with her students and in quotes that appear projected onto the stage. The play is exceptionally poignant in places (this is cancer, after all) but its barbed one liners have a sweet, sorrowful irony to them that will undoubtedly make you laugh out loud.

It's a heartbreaking piece about dying, but it is also about living, too. Vivian's has been a half-life: wrapped up in her studies, refusing to compromise, she has achieved incredible success in her career. But while she is in hospital she is visited by no-one save for her old professor, who happens to drop by unexpectedly. She finds friendship and comfort with a young nurse, who doesn't read Donne, but nevertheless understands a poetry in the everyday.

Hesmondhalgh, bald-headed and wearing nothing but a hospital gown, is a joy to watch as she dives headlong into such a meaty, well-written part. It is unbearably moving as she is slowly worn down by cancer, and chemo, becoming as vulnerable as one could possibly be. A superb performance.

Wit runs at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until February 13.