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Hayley Mills of Ladies in Lavender chats to Shaun McKenna

Approved by ATG's PR & Communications Officer, David Bradbury

Child stars are not supposed to grow old, and god forbid they do so gracefully. So it’s hugely refreshing to meet Hayley Mills, still going strong and working harder than ever as she takes the lead in the stage premiere of Ladies in Lavender.

Adapted from the popular period film starring Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, the play is set in a remote Cornish village where the lives of two sisters are turned upside down by the arrival of a young Polish violinist. For most actors, it’s the script that decides them on a job. For Mills, it was the music, taken from the original film score by Nigel Hess and performed by virtuoso Joshua Bell.

'I saw the film when it first came out,' she recalls 'and the soundtrack immediately became my favourite piece of music. It was the first time I’d heard of Joshua Bell and I’ve now listened to practically everything he’s ever recorded! So when this play came to me, I knew without a shadow of a doubt I wanted to do it. The only pause I had was the length of time since I’ve worked in theatre.'

Last seen on a UK stage in 2003 in the National Theatre’s Humble Boy, Mills has been commuting ever since between New York, where she lives with her partner, American actor Fridous Bamji, and South Africa, where she has already filmed eight series of the ITV drama, Wild at Heart.

Nursing a cup of tea high up in the eaves of the theatre where Ladies in Lavender is rehearsing, Mills marvels at the change of pace. 'It’s just a whole different way of working. It’s wonderful to have four weeks of rehearsing and to have that time to discover your character – where you are going and who you are. It’s such a luxury. But it’s somewhat different to Africa!'

Hard to believe of someone who was once the most famous face in Hollywood, but Mills still gets nerves. 'Being on stage, you know it’s quite scary actually,' she says, her diminutive frame looking all of a sudden rather fragile and vulnerable. 'When you are in front of the camera shooting a TV series and you don’t like what you are doing or you bump into the furniture, you have to keep on going! But then I really love working in the theatre.'

The rehearsal period has been invaluable, she says. 'Such a lot goes on in the play. It’s a subtle, delicate, powerful, deep, real journey and I think that to put it on the stage is very brave. You can’t do close-ups on stage like you can with a movie. But what you have in theatre is the time and the opportunity to develop moments and characters.'

Mills and her co-star Belinda Lang are markedly younger than Smith and Dench in the film, but as Mills points out, Ursula and Janet were in their 40s in the original short story on which the screenplay was based. 'The point is really not how old they are but what has happened in their lives, what they’ve had and what they will never have. All those unfulfilled dreams and longings,' she says.

But for now, it’s back to rehearsals, where the cast have finally been let loose on Liz Ashcroft’s ingenious set. 'As soon as we saw the model on the first day you knew instantly it was Cornwall!' says Mills. 'There are lots of different sets incorporated into it – the beach, the living room, the bedroom, the garden. But the thing I love most is that half of what you see when you look at the set is sky. When love hits Ursula, it hits her like a bomb. She doesn’t know where it’s going to take her but she knows it’s something that she wants to experience. She feels lost and yet the magic of falling in love transforms the whole world.'

You can see Hayley Mills in Ladies in Lavender at Richmond Theatre on Mon 11 – Sat 16 June.