Farewell Mister Haffmann, Bath Ustinov Studio

FRENCH actor Jean-Philippe Daguerre’s first play Adieu Monsieur Haffmann opened in 2016 and quickly took the theatrical world by storm, winning awards and filling theatres, and was also adapted for the big screen. Now the first English language version makes its UK debut, opening at Bath Theatre Royal’s Ustinov Studio where it plays until 23rd September – and if you haven’t already booked a ticket, do so now.

Over the years since 1945 we have read, seen and heard much about people in Germany and other occupied territories saving the persecuted Jews, and of the bravery of the French Resistance. Approaching his 50th birthday, Daguerre decided to write a play about life in Paris in 1940, when the German Otto Abetz was ambassador to the Vichy court. Parisians went in droves to the Le Juif et la France exhibition and listened to what we’d now call “fake news” about Jewish “crimes” on the radio.

In Haffmann’s jewellers shop, the Jewish owner has seen what is coming, and sent his wife and four children across the border into neutral Switzerland. He calls his talented young apprentice gem cutter, Pierre, in to see him, and presents an unusual offer. If he hands over the shop to Pierre, removing the Haffmann name from the premises, the business will prosper, and, when the war is over, things can return to normal. The price is that he will stay hidden in the cellar for the duration of the occupation.

Pierre must ask his wife Isabelle’s opinion, and when she is persuaded to agree, the young man comes up with a rider of his own.

Soon the shop becomes the favourite haunt of fashionable Nazis and their French supporters. Pierre meets Abetz and his French wife. And he asks them to dinner.

Their story unfolds in this gripping 90-minute play, which has been translated and adapted by Jeremy Sams and is directed by Lindsay Posner. The tension is sometimes relieved by laughter, as the constantly terrified trio adjust to the realities of their peculiar and precarious situation.

It is brilliantly performed here by Nigel Lindsay as Haffmann, Lisa Dillon and Ciaran Owens as Isabelle and Pierre Vigneau and Josefina Gabrielle and Alexander Hanson as Suzanne and Otto Abetz. Daguerre adds a coda, detailing the (real) future of the Abetzes, and those of his imagined characters, drawn from the recollections of his own family and friends.

Farewell Mister Haffmann makes an exciting start to the new Ustinov season, and should rapidly find dates at theatres around the country. It’s an important play with a timeless message, building to a memorable climax. Please do take the opportunity to see it at Bath.


Footnote: Please can someone persuade the designers to think again about the poster and programme cover, which looks as though it is advertising a third-rate murder mystery tour.

Photographs by Simon Annand.

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