The Divide by Alan Ayckbourn, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

TALKING "in conversation" in July, Alan Ayckbourn explained the origins of The Divide. As the next play would be his 80th, it was suggested that he should do something special to mark that milestone. The result was an epic multi-act play which he immediately declared "virtually unstageable". Yet on sunday night, there was an attempt to do just that, resulting in a marathon treat for Scarborough playgoers.

For a one-off event, the five-part work was read by sixteen actors voicing thirty-three characters at ten lecterns over eight hours.

Introducing this World Premiere Gala Reading of the Divide, Ayckbourn said that it had been ”the most extraordinary experience of my life,” stressing that this was a unique opportunity to hear the work – the logistics being ‘too complicated’ to ever allow a conventional presentation.

Set a hundred years or so in the future, in a post-plague Salisbury, men and women are segregated. Men wear white as a symbol of their innocence whilst women, who are convinced by the authorities that they remain "infected", wear black robes as a sign of their guilt and sin. Homosexuality is the norm; heterosexuality is considered a perversion; and children, conceived by donor insemination, are raised by "mamas and mapas" – female couples assuming otherwise old-fashioned roles.

Told mainly through diary extracts from protagonist Soween (played at different ages by Velvet Hebditch, Terenia Edwards and Heather Stoney) and her elder brother Elihu (Sam Tennant, James Powell) we follow the children as they grow up in a misogynistic, bullying, dysfunctional culture. Very few boys are born; those that are relocate across the "divide" to the northern, male province as soon as they reach 18. Most inhabitants are accepting of the status quo until Elihu falls in love with Giella (Elizabeth Boag) and the entire social structure starts to unravel.

Death and deceit; trials and betrayals; politics and petty council in-fighting – it’s all there, in the excruciating detail that makes the audience laugh and wince by turns. Even as a reading there were some great performances, including by Liza Goddard as Mama Chayza, Fleur Mould as the eccentric Desollia, and Richard Stacey as Tutor Rudgrin. But the greatest accolade has to go to Terenia Edwards – seldom off stage, and always central to the action.

Any dystopian-future play inevitably invites comparisons: yes, there are flavours of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Nigel Neale – and, of course, echoes of those definitive star-crossed teenage lovers, Romeo and Juliet. But The Divide is unmistakably Ayckbourn, skipping effortlessly between comedy and tragedy in one of this year's most significant theatre events.

Gilly Collinson