The stage version of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel comes to The Lowry as part of a UK tour ahead of its West End debut. We talk to stars Hayley Mills, who takes on the role of Evelyn, and Rula Lenska, who plays Madge, to find out more.
What attracted you to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel?
Rula: “I can’t imagine anybody saying no to it. It’s on everybody’s list of favourite books and films, and it’s particularly appealing for us as a bunch of older actors. The characters have such wonderful storylines and it’s a beautifully-adapted script by Deborah Moggach, who wrote the original book. It’s full of hope, everybody’s journey is different and it’s a feel-good, beautiful piece of theatre”.
Hayley: “Because I absolutely loved the script and there wasn’t a shadow of a doubt about wanting to do it. I love the play, the writing, the part and I’m mad about the director Lucy Bailey. It’s a wonderful play and Deborah Moggach is a great writer. Like most people, I was familiar with the title and the story. I had seen the film and there’s something about the story that just gets you. It’s very truthful and it deals with lots of different issues – such as getting older, being on your own – whilst being tremendously hopeful. It’s a reminder that where there’s life there’s hope”.
Rula, how would you describe the character of Madge? And have you avoided studying Celia Imrie’s performance in the film?
Rula: “She’s a rather brittle cougar who has built up her own business and is out looking for a rich maharajah with his own elephants. And no, I haven’t watched the film since landing the part. Likewise I haven’t gone back to the book. I was advised by the director [Lucy Bailey] not to because one can only portray so much with the lines one is given in the script. You want to bring your own interpretation to bear on it”.
With the world the way it is at the moment, hope is such an important thing to hang on toRula Lenska
Hayley, Dame Judi Dench played Evelyn in the film version. Is it daunting in her footsteps?
Hayley: “If I dwelled upon it then yes, but I don’t. I briefly thought about watching the film again but I decided ‘No, I can’t do that’. She is such a wonderful actress and I couldn’t begin to play it the way she does. That’s what is so fascinating about this business I’m lucky to be in: Everyone brings their own experiences and understanding to a role. But Judi is a consummate actress. I could watch her all day, even reading the telephone directory”.
Can you relate to your characters in any way?
Rula: “There’s always something of oneself in one’s characters. I’m an optimist by nature, as Madge is, and I’m a romantic. I’ve had a couple of husbands and she’s had three. She’s a person who never gives in or gives up, which is very much me as well. I think once you start giving in then it’s the beginning of the end. We’re at a time in our lives where this is a golden opportunity for the cast. My role isn’t particularly huge but it’s just a joy to be part of an ensemble piece that has all its sadnesses but is also, as I say, full of hope. With the world the way it is at the moment, hope is such an important thing to hang on to”.
Hayley: “Absolutely. She’s such a beautifully-written character and I can relate to her age, plus the fact we all look back on our lives realising that we’ve made mistakes. One of my least favourite songs is Frank Sinatra’s My Way. I absolutely hate it. It’s so smug! Who can really say ‘Regrets, I have a few but then again too few to mention’? You’d have to be completely switched off and in your own very selfish bubble”.
Why do you think this story resonates with people so much?
Rula: “Like the book and the film, it’s about having a new lease of life. This story is what people need at the moment. There’s been so much sadness, so much fear, so much anxiety, and while the story is very true and very real it’s also escapism. It’s full of brightness, sunshine and discoveries. It’s magical.
Hayley: “I think we see ourselves in it. If we’re lucky we’re all going to get old. Then there’s seeing all these characters from different backgrounds, with their own losses and regrets, come to India and start again. It’s a reminder that starting a new life is always possible. I don’t necessarily mean finding another love or another marriage, it’s more about finding a new lease of life, new interests, a new joie de vivre. We can all get into a rut without realising it until we’re jolted out of it, like these people who are forced to go to India for a variety of different reasons – either because they can’t afford to stay in England, they don’t want to go into a care home or their families can’t take them in because they don’t have room. They’re uprooted into this completely different culture. In the beginning it’s a shock but it turns out to be the making of them. It’s such an inspiring story and it’s exactly the right time to tell it now because it’s about the indomitable human spirit”.
Do you feel enough stories are being told about the older generation?
Rula: “No and in my opinion there are never enough. Time goes so fast as you start getting older and there are fewer good parts, particularly for older women – which is another reason why it is a joy to be offered something like this. The whole cast are just magnificent and delightful to be with. Hayley is exactly the same as she was 40 years ago and the Indian contingent are just superb. They’re so helpful, so knowledgeable and so beautiful. They’re incredible”.
Hayley: “No, there aren’t. People think ‘Old people are boring’ or ‘I’m not interested in their stories because all the people they talk about are going to be dead’. But I’m in my 70s and I don’t feel as if I am that age, and I realise that’s how other old people feel too. We don’t feel old at all. [Laughs] We just look it and that’s why we all avoid the mirror”.
You’ve both had such a varied careers. What have been your highlights?
Hayley: “The first film I ever made was Tiger Bay with my father and that was a masterclass in film acting. I didn’t go to drama school, which I probably should have done later, but I was incredibly lucky to work with some incredible actors, my father included. I’m also very proud of some of the plays and musicals I’ve done over the years. I love to take on a challenge because it frightens the life out of me, that idea of ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this’.
Rula: “There have been many, with the first real highlight being Rock Follies. I will never forget it. It was an extraordinary piece of television and it put me on the map. It had fantastic storylines, fantastic music and fantastic fantasy sequences. There have been many theatre pieces, doing Same Time, Next Year with my ex-husband [Dennis Waterman] and the play 84 Charing Cross Road – which up until now I think is probably my greatest triumph. Then there have been many, many television appearances, most recently in Coronation Street. I also absolutely loved working on Robin of Sherwood, Doctor Who… loads and loads of things.
“I love the rehearsal process of stage work, where you get a bunch of people who you don’t know but some of whom you know about and you’ve seen their work. Then you all go on this journey together – not just the cast but the crew and production team – from the first day of rehearsal until you open. When you do television or film your definitive performance is not really your choice. You do something, then it’s cut together by directors and editors. On stage you are in charge and your performance continues to grow as you develop and discover new things. It’s a constant work in progress. And when you feel that you have the audience in the palm of your hands – whether it’s making them laugh, making them think, making them sad, making them happy – it’s a wonderful feeling”.
It is a big-name cast. Have you worked with any of your costars before?
Rula: “I haven’t, no. I’ve known Hayley for many years but we haven’t worked together previously. Likewise, I haven’t worked with the rest of the cast but it’s a delight to watch each one of them find their way, develop their characters and develop our relationships with each other. And the set is magnificent; this dilapidated old Raj palace which is decaying but full of charm”.
Hayley: “I haven’t, either, although I’ve known Rula [Lenska] for many years from bumping into each other. I’ve seen Paul Nicholas’ work over the years but I’ve never worked with him either. It’s great fun meeting people you’ve admired over the years and finally getting to be in a show together”.
What are you most looking forward to about taking The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel around the country?
Rula: “I’m looking forward to performing in enthusiastic venues, which I’m in no doubt will happen because everyone one mentions it to says ‘It’s my favourite film’ or ‘I love the book’. I think it appeals across the ages. And when you’re touring in a good show with a cast who all get on with each other it’s the greatest fun. Of course it’s also tiring, going from one end of the country to the other, but I do think this is going to be tremendous fun”.
Hayley: “It’s great fun when you’re lucky enough to be in with a good company, which this is. We’re all enjoying the rehearsal process and everybody loves Lucy Bailey. We’re excited about being in a show that is going to give people a lot of pleasure and I love turning up at a new town or city and finding my digs, exploring the theatre, the opening night in a new venue – it’s very exciting. I like investigating new places, going for walks, having nice lunches. Being on the road and away from home can be hard and I always travel with my own pillow, but touring is also really rewarding.”
‘The world has gone through some very tough times but I believe in the goodness of the human race’Hayley Mills
What do you hope audiences take away from seeing the show?
Rula: “I hope they’ll be uplifted, enchanted, sometimes maybe a bit tearful but generally leaving the theatre with a good feeling in their hearts and their souls”.
Hayley: “I hope they’ll feel infused with optimism and hope about the future as well as the belief that life really is what you make it. There are so many things dragging us down in the world today. We’re going through dire straits but then when you look back over history you see what people went through in the First and Second World Wars, the Depression, what have you. The world has gone through some very tough times but I believe in the goodness of the human race. I believe in our incredible ingenuity. We just all have to play our part and do what we can”.