THE life of Hayley Mills has experienced many twists and turns since she became a successful movie star at the tender age of 12 and now, at 57 years old, she has found herself on a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Humble Boy', a play by Charlotte Jones, began touring in October, visiting theatres around the country. I caught up with a slightly flustered Hayley as she arrived at a Cardiff hotel last week: "It's always hectic on opening night, first you have to find the place and then it's always busy, with things to sort out and people to call."

Despite being a comedy, Humble Boy' explores issues which invite comparison with Shakespeare's Hamlet. Hayley plays Flora, an ex-bunny girl, and the play concentrates on her relationship with her troubled son. After years apart, they are reunited at the funeral of their beekeeping husband and father.

"I'm really enjoying the tour," stresses Hayley. "The play is so well written, with characters based on real people - truthful people - and it is very clever with wonderful dialogue. It really is one of those plays which only comes along once in a lifetime.

"Flora is a very interesting character. She has issues and problems, but there is definite hope at the end. The play is actually very funny, but it operates on lots of levels. Some of the aspects people are not prepared for; there's a kind of spiritual element that's often unexpected. But I won't go into it more than that!"

The play arrived in Richmond this week, bringing Hayley to an area she has known most of her life. Much of her childhood was spent in her parents' home The Wick' on Richmond Hill and as an adult she lived in Hampton for 20 years.

Hayley was "very much looking forward" to Richmond Theatre. "I've worked there many times but not for a long while. In fact, I was thinking today that this tour has been sort of retracing my life in a way; revisiting places I've not been to for a very long time.

"Like Cardiff; I've not been here for ages, but the first film I ever did - Tiger Bay - was actually based here. All the places I'm visiting on tour are reminders of different parts of my life. It's really been very special."

When Hayley was 12 years old, her father - now Sir John Mills - was due to star in the film Tiger Bay'. The director, J Lee Thompson, was visiting her father and had yet to cast the child lead: "He asked if I'd like to do a screen test and then I got the part.

"It was a wonderful time in my life, having such lovely parts from the beginning. I was very lucky to have a start like that and having fellow actors of such a high calibre. It sets your sights very high."

A child star was born. Her charisma stole people's hearts, including Walt Disney's - who fell in love with her performance in Tiger Bay', leading to her American film debut in 1960 with Pollyanna'. She won an Academy Award for her portrayal of this adorably optimistic girl. And who could forget her twin performance in the 1961 classic The Parent Trap'. Playing the mischievous but enchanting sisters, with their match making efforts and catchy songs: "Lets get together yeah, yeah, yeah; two is twice as nice as one."

Hayley went on to star in over 20 great films, such as Whistle Down the Wind', Gypsy Girl' and The Chalk Garden'. There was great family support - her mother, Mary Hayley Bell, being a successful playwright and her father a well-established and greatly esteemed actor. Hayley speaks highly of her father: "He set a wonderful example for me of professionalism and how to behave. He is a very professional actor and disciplined human being who taught me lots of valuable lessons."

But did the pressure prove difficult to cope with at such a young age? "Yes," admits Hayley, "when I got older it did. In my late teens it became hard to know what to do with my life, what directions to take. It was difficult trying to figure out who I was as a woman, what sort of person I was becoming."

In the 1970s her film career began to slow down and she concentrated on television productions for a while - such as The Flame Trees of Thika' - before travelling in a theatrical direction. "Opportunities came along for theatre but, if they hadn't, I might have stopped acting, because it was at a time when I was very undecided and insecure about my work on screen.

"I considered going back to school because I really needed to learn something. My education had been very seriously interrupted. But I ended up learning the theatre and a whole new way of working. It was kind of relearning what I'd previously been doing instinctively."

Hayley developed a new passion: "I've done a lot of theatre in the last 20 years. It's such a complete experience and an enormous challenge. It's more complete than the screen, because every night there are a lot of people out there in the audience and you never know what may happen. Each night's different with subtle changes."

"You can really investigate your characters and hone your craft," Hayley enthuses. "More so than in movies. During the run of a play, you're developing all the time and discovering new things. There's also the relationship you have with an audience. You do have one with a camera - which is a wonderful being - but with the theatre you're really out there."

Hayley has been very active on the London theatre circuit and toured America for a year and a half starring as Miss Anna in The King and I', from 1997. At the beginning of this year, she was delighted to work with her youngest son Jason, currently an actor in New York. "We did a play together in Cape Cod," she says. "A wonderful thriller called Chestnut'". She often sees her eldest son Crispian in London, who was the lead singer of the successful band Kula Shaker' and has just finished touring Japan with his current group Jeevers'.

Hayley's life is now divided between two countries: "I have a little house in Barnes and my family are in England, but also an apartment in New York, where my other half lives."

Richmond Theatre is the end of the road for Humble Boy', the last night (Saturday, December 6) being the final performance of its current tour. But she is yet to consider future projects: "I'm just looking forward to a holiday at the moment! And spending a lovely family Christmas over here."

So things would appear to be calming down in the roller-coaster life of Hayley Mills, after the exciting days of childhood stardom and personal traumas of adulthood. But who knows what interesting paths are yet to be trodden along her remaining journey