R C Sherriff acted in several of his pre-Journey’s End plays, but he was by no means the only member of the Sherriff family to tread the boards. Surviving programmes, cast lists and diaries show that his mother Constance and sister Beryl also performed on the stage in various amateur productions. A letter and related newspaper cutting prove that Deirdre Sherriff, one of his many distant relations, went even further and launched a career as a professional actress in the West End.
In one of his diaries Sherriff’s father Herbert “Pips” Hankin Sherriff mentions taking his children to see Constance perform in the chorus of a performance of the opera Faust. It was staged by The Percy Richards Amateur Operatic Society at Surbiton Assembly Rooms on 18 December 1905, and he loyally reported that: “…she looked the best in it” (SHC ref. 3813/16/6/13). She seems to have started to land juicier roles in the Operatic Society’s productions a few years later. Surviving newspaper cuttings in a scrapbook (SHC ref. 2332/9/12, p.9) show that Constance played the title role in its production of Carmen on 28 February 1907, again at Surbiton Assembly Rooms. A review in the same scrapbook states that: “Great praise is due to Mrs Sherriff, who for the first time undertook the role of Carmen. She shows very great promise in both voice and acting” (SHC ref. 2332/9/12, p.11).
She was still performing on the amateur stage as late as 1926, when she was listed as “Mrs H H Sherriff” in a playbill for a Cymba Dramatic Club production of John Hasting Turner’s comedy The Lilies of the Field at The Gables Theatre in Surbiton. Interestingly the playbill reveals that her son R C Sherriff also appeared in the cast:
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Sherriff’s sister Beryl also acted in minor roles in two of Sherriff’s amateur plays during 1920s: The Woods of Meadowside (1922) as Mrs Tayler-Gush, and Cornlow-in-the-Downs (1923) as The Maid. There’s no evidence she also took singing parts as her mother did.
Describing herself as a: “…sort of cousin” in a letter of August 1935 to R C Sherriff, Deirdre Sherriff mentioned that she had performed in Ivor Novello’s non musical 1934 play Murder and Mayfair at the Globe Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue in London. After establishing her artistic credentials, she came to the crux of the matter and asked him if he could help her land a small part in his forthcoming co-adaptation of Henri Bernstein’s play Espoir with Jeanne de Casalis:
Sherriff replied via his secretary that he had no say in the casting for Espoir, which in any case does not seem to have made it to its premiere performance. Deirdre pressed on, and surviving cuttings in the Theatre Collection at the University of Birmingham Special Collections (ref: MS38/3988) shows that in 1936 she appeared in The Happy Hypocrite at His Majesty’s Theatre in London, which starred Ivor Novello and Vivien Leigh.
Enthusiasm for the theatre wasn’t confined to Sherriff’s female relatives. His brother Cecil “Bundy” Sherriff appeared as the Driver in the premiere performance of Sherriff’s first staged play A Hitch in the Proceedings in 1921:
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Bundy’s career seems to have taken him abroad after this, leaving his mother and siblings to fly the flag for the Sherriff family in local amateur dramatics. In 1929 he was serving with the Royal Engineers in India, but he still had plenty of praise for Journey’s End in a letter he wrote to his older brother: “I rather envy you having produced such a realistic piece of work about the war…” (SHC ref. 3813/2/3).
Their father also responded enthusiastically when he saw Journey’s End. Unlike his wife he does not seem to have been at the first performance of the play at the Apollo Theatre in London on 9 December 1928. However, an entry in his 1929 diary shows that he attended a performance of the play at the Savoy Theatre on 24 January of that year: “Much impressed with it – a very powerful play which grips one throughout” (SHC ref. 3813/16/6/14).
While Constance may have encouraged Sherriff to perform in local amateur productions, Herbert helped to foster Sherriff’s love for literature. In a fragment of an unpublished autobiographical draft Sherriff mentioned how Herbert would: “…every night read aloud from Dickens and Mark Twain and Stevenson and Scott” to his children (SHC ref. 2332/3/9/7/1). Given this evidence Sherriff can be viewed as a member of a family whose interests in the theatre and literature can be traced through at least two generations and several decades.
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R C Sherriff Project Archivist
Surrey History Centre