Our spirits are ageless

Posted 23rd January 2023

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is coming to Milton Keynes Theatre this January.

Think of it as a new year pick-me-up about taking risks, finding love and making the most of second chances, no matter where you are in life. Hayley Mills is among the stellar cast doing justice to the stage adaptation of the Sunday Times Bestseller, turned smash hit film. She spoke with Pulse Magazine’s Sammy Jones.

“It’s a lovely, lovely show,” Hayley says with conviction, “It’s very positive, the people are real. It’s life affirming, and that’s why I really wanted to do it.
“I felt we need to be reminded about human beings and our resilience… and how you never really, until the day you die, stop discovering things about life and about yourself, and I mean good and positive things.

“However old you are, as I say in the show, whether you are 18 or 80 you still can find love.” Hayley is clearly smitten by Deborah Moggach’s work.

“I wanted to do it instantly when I read it,” she admits.
I imagine that doesn’t happen too often?

“No, it doesn’t actually. But I feel this is what the world needs now,” she says with a little laugh.

Apart from the seven people in the show in their 70s, there are much younger Indian actors who are fabulous and gorgeous and a joy to watch dancing. It lifts us all up actually – the people on the stage and the people in the audience.
“It’s a real tonic.”

Hayley plays Evelyn in the show, the role made famous by Judi Dench on the big screen, but she will step away from the character at the end of February.

“I will have done four months and four months touring is enough,” Hayley thinks.

“You get a bit repetitive, you have to be very careful and diligent that you don’t just repeat yourself, you have to stay 100% focused all the time to keep it alive and fresh, and to keep it spontaneous so the audience feels that you’ve never said that line before, and you’ve just had that thought for the first time.

“It’s a good challenge, but also the thing about a long tour is you learn so much about the character you are playing – even after weeks and weeks you will suddenly understand a line they say in a completely new way. You start joining up the dots in a really interesting way. I realised that just after the 10th week of doing it.”

Off stage, there is a real feeling of camaraderie among the cast that only comes with a long stint on the road.

“It brings the company very much together – we all depend on each other so much more, we all get to feel like a family and we’re all experiencing the same thing away from home; funny old digs, lumpy mattresses and all those things…

“When we get together at a new theatre, it’s a new challenge, new dressing rooms and new audiences, but after a while you have to stop and refresh. For me, the end of February will definitely be the right time to leave.”

Food can be a bit of a faff when you are on the road, too – not least if you try for a plant-based diet, as many of Hayley’s family members do.

“What I found is that touring is very hard for vegetarians. Very hard,” she emphasises, “I eat fish, so I am not strictly a vegetarian, because I haven’t got the energy. I always lose a lot of weight when I tour too, and that’s not particularly healthy.

“When you are travelling you can’t carry your olive oil, salt and pepper and condiments….

“Sometimes you are far away from shops and don’t have cooking facilities or time to go shopping.”

The conversation turns to the bigger picture, and the difficulties faced by touring actors.

“It’s not very easy in this country, touring,” Hayley says, “Theatres are struggling to keep their heads above the water and actors are not served well in terms of subsistence and accommodation. It has diminishing returns. But we love the business we are in and we don’t want to make it impossible for producers to put on great productions.”

When we speak, Hayley has been colouring up the stage in Woking – close enough to head home post-performance, and her partner has been dishing up the nourishment.

“But a lot of the time you live on sandwiches from Tesco…”
Hayley comes from a family who have been responsible for entertaining generation after another; her father John Mills is one of this country’s most beloved actors; her mother Mary Hayley Bell worked as an actress, and was also revered as a writer, most notably for Whistle Down the Wild. Hayley’s sister Juliet is an actress, and it was Hayley’s aunt, Annette, who accompanied Muffin the Mule on television.
Despite that family pedigree, or perhaps because of it, Hayley admits to struggling with self-doubt around her acting abilities for a long time.

“It was different when I was a child, it was very instinctive and I loved doing it,” she told me of those early years, “It was only when I got older and started judging that I became self conscious.

“But that self awareness and judgement, although it’s painfully excruciating and difficult and can impede you, it can also be the spur – it can be the thing that drives you.

“It’s just one of those things – it’s like being thrown off a horse, you’ve got to get right back up again. Nobody’s life is one success after another…it’s like a temperature on a chart, it goes up and down, the peaks and valleys of life.

“We learn more when we go into the doldrums, than we do when everything seems great.”
Despite huge hits on the small and big screens, with hindsight she would have opted to go to drama school.

“When I went into the theatre, I had no technique, and you learn that. It’s taken me over the years to understand the balance and the timing, when the audience is bored, or restless or enjoying it.

It is almost like a dance, you can’t just go on the stage and play the scene and not be aware of ‘them out there,’” she says, mentioning the audience, “Even though it should appear that you are completely involved in the scene you are playing. You have to have that sixth sense. I think I always had that because of working in front of the camera.

“The camera was my audience, but it was also my friend. I wasn’t stressed, I wasn’t scared, I liked that. I knew it was watching and I knew the camera understood what I was doing.”

Still, if she needed advice, in her father she had the perfect ear to bend.

Main image 3 people: Hayley Mills, Paul Nicholas and Rula Lenska – leading the feel-good comedy of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Richenda Carey as Dorothy and Nishad More as Sonny Kapoor with Hayley
Rula Lenska as Madge, Marlene Sidaway as Muriel and Hayley Mills as Evelyn