EASILY bored in his early acting days in Scarborough, Alan Ayckbourn liked to scare himself to keep matters interesting on stage. Not ideal for his fellow cast members maybe, as he later acknowledged, but it led him to finding more fulfilment in writing and directing plays and in turn providing stimulation for his actors.

In his 81st play in his 60th anniversary year at the Stephen Joseph Theatre – and his 58th year as a playwright – he has "scared" himself once more by writing an elegiac, epic memory play with 21 characters, spanning 60 years and the four lives of a house that is given the central character status in his canon for the first time.

Not only four lives and four interlinking stories, in 1925, 1945, 1965 and 1985, but also four parts make up the Round stage, whose transformations are beautifully choreographed with typical Ayckbourn flair as "no-one should be subjected to just watching furniture being moved".

In an echo of Ayckbourn's revival of Taking Steps this summer, there are no doors on Kevin Jenkins's open-plan design, keeping the sound effects desk busy in tandem with the chameleon cast's mime skills as they move between (initially) the hallway, study, ballroom and garden.

As Kirkbridge Manor changes from Twenties' grand country house, to permanently cold Forties' girls' prep school, to hard-up Sixties' arts centre to plush Eighties' hotel, so too do the roles and mores of men and, more especially women, as signified by the play's title.

By the nature of being staged as four 30-minute sections, the history is indeed brief, but the accumulative effect is for Ayckbourn's play to acquire a tragi-comic depth, where the one constant figure, Albert Spates, is one of those unremarkable, self-effacing men to whom life happens as farm boy and part-time footman, love-struck teacher, weary administrator and gently greying manager.

Played with quiet grace by Antony Eden – the stand-out turn in Taking Steps – Spates ages from 17 to 77, from being a servant whose first kiss is tenderly planted on him by the squiffy Lady Caroline Kirkbridge (York actress Frances Marshall in her impressive SJT debut), second wife of a misogynist aristocratic monster (Russell Dixon).

That is the moment that lifts Brief History beyond period parody. From there, the fireworks truly spark on Bonfire Night in 1945 in an explosive finale like none before in an Ayckbourn play amid the insufferable pain of wartime loss. Ayckbourn (aided by Dixon in caustic dame mode and Laurence Pears as an earnest Leftie) has fun satirising pantomime and stroppy right-on actors in Part Three and then addresses patronising old-age stereotyping in Part Four, before supplying a Chekhov-style haunting finale linking all four parts together.

Laura Matthews and Louise Shuttleworth join in the cast's relish of recalling the old days of constant role changes in weekly rep, just one of the play's myriad pleasures. Nevertheless, one national reviewer had it that latter-day Ayckbourn is more to be endured than enjoyed. Balderdash!

At 78, he is writing and directing with as much wit, insight, originality and mischief as ever, still surprising, still setting himself theatrical puzzles, still so spot-on about the arts, education, marriage, romance, loss and life's vicissitudes for men and women, but now with added reflection and humane sagacity. Play number 81 is a brief history of Ayckbourn in one play.

A Brief History Of Women, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in rep until October 7. Box office: 01723 370541or at sjt.uk.com