BETTER Off Dead is Alan Ayckbourn's 82nd play, and unlike the crime novelist at the heart of this reflective work, he is not in danger of repeating himself, nor of suffering from fading powers.

Billed as a "comedy of confusion about a grumpy old man who might not be so grumpy after all", it finds irascible author Algy Waterbridge(Ayckbourn stalwart Christopher Godwin) in a winter of discontent in his summerhouse, tapping away at his 33rd novel in his Tommy Middlebrass series, his character leaping from lap top to head at unruly moments of highest irritation.

And when Algy's middle-England voice is not turning all Yorkshire and grouchy, DCI Middlebrass (Russell Dixon)) is there on stage, as blunt as Yorkshire's spinners too often this season, and determined to see off his murderous nemesis, with or without the aid of his circumspect assistant DS Gemma Price (Naomi Petersen).

Here Ayckbourn adds another string to his bow, pastiching the tropes of detective story writing. He is so darn good, he can even captures the art of no longer writing so well, and while Middlebrass might be "middlebrow", he is undergoing his own late-career doubts too. He is at the John Thaw stage of being Morse, remorse and all.

The errant Middlebrass won't let Algy rest, and nor will his wife Jessica (Eileen Battye), in the early stages of dementia, in a cycle of repetition, but again, such is Ayckbourn's skill, that as with the peerless Woman In Mind, he finds both the humour and the tragedy in her plight.

Everyone is more war than peace to Algy; from his ever-enthusiastic, well-intentioned, maybe misguided, definitely long-suffering PA, Thelma (Liz Jadav), to his flash, on-trend, off-hand publisher, Jason Ratcliffe (Laurence Pears), an upstart from a family firm who arrives in a helicopter. Ayckbourn's thoughts on the modern world of publishing are all too clear.

He writes with rather more affection for the changing, troubled profession of journalism, with a whiff of nostalgia for the days of bigger papers, bigger staff and bigger sales. Albeit he does so through the spectacularly incompetent figure of Gus Crewes (Leigh Symonds), who was a junior at Algy's school that the novelist cannot recall and is now a struggling hack with remarkable powers of misinformation that manifest themselves in a gloriously gaffe-ridden interview with Algy.

Crewes specialises in obituaries, and so somehow that is where his profile ends up, consigning him to the Mark Twain too-early grave. And so, Ayckbourn starts mulling over the merits of being Better Off Dead, as Algy seeks to kill off Middlebrass, while his posthumous sales go through the roof.

Algy is in his late 70s, living in Yorkshire, still writing, like a certain Mr Ayckbourn himself, but there is too much mischief-making, too much wisdom, too much originality, too much wit, so much still to say, that this in no way feels an autobiographical work, What's more, amid the familiar darkness, amid the reflection on ageing, amid the Prospero-like irritations, amid the typically superb performances, Sir Alan finishes with a poetic hymn to weather-beaten love, delivered beautifully by Battye's Jessica in her one moment of clarity.

Better Off Dead, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in rep until October 6. Box office: 01723 370541 or at