Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Andrey and joan 

Dan Payne as Andrey explaining a point to Katie Johnson as Joan

A Walk in the Woods

Sutton Arts Theatre


The timing of this production has a sort of theatrical irony about it. Here we are in the midst of what has become a World War III by proxy being fought on the battleground of Ukraine and the theatre darkens to herald a play about a rather genteel and civilised relationship between US and Russian arms negotiators discussing the limitation of nuclear weapons.

Lee Blessings 1988 play premiered as the Cold War was beginning to thaw and concerns itself with the negotiations in Geneva, in neutral Switzerland, towards a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), talks which commenced in 1982 and, through agreements on START I, II and III and now New START, have continued ever since – although the current status is uncertain.

With the nuclear genie out of the bottle the idea was to limit the number of nuclear warheads of the USA and USSR, now Russia, but that morphed into more a tit for tat exercise which was more designed to ensure neither superpower was able to get the upper hand – the balance being the basis of the concept of mutual destruction.

The play is inspired by an incident in 1982 in the early days of talks when chief negotiators Paul H. Nitze and Yuli A. Kvitsinsky went for an unofficial walk in the woods. There, free of diplomats and politics, they agreed on a breakthrough – back in the political arena where image is always more important than logic, the breakthrough was rejected by both sides.

Here we have Leningrad born Andrey Botvinnik, in his late 50s, and American Joan Honeyman, in her 40s, taking an unofficial stroll in Geneva’s woods in late summer sunshine.

Dan Payne could happily pass as a KGB heavy as he appears as Andrey, the bluff USSR negotiator, but he turns out to be a gentle giant away from the negotiations. The arms limitation talks have become a career, a way of life, and he understands the game better than most.

Any agreement cannot be seen to be an “American” suggestion, no matter how good it is, or it will not get past the people he answers to in Moscow, and any attempt to persuade them otherwise could be seen as a letter of resignation.


Lead negotiators Paul H. Nitze and Yuli A. Kvitsinsky

Katie Johnson is Joan, new to the talks and this is her first major negotiation although she has carried out the role “at a lower level” as Andrey is wont to remind her in the early days. She has taken over from McIntyre who Andrey had liked but could never befriend.

Joan is business like, professional and serious, she sees the negotiations as more confrontational than conversational, she and Andrey being on different sides working towards an agreement to save the world from destruction.

Andrey is more pragmatic. To him he knows what his government will agree to, and he knows Joan probably does as well, as well as where the US lines are drawn, so away from the negotiating table the pair might as well be friends, and be frivolous, by which he means talk about anything interesting that has nothing to do with the talks.

It is something Joan finds difficult to comprehend, frivolous not being in her career diplomat lexicon. They are serious negotiators, on opposite sides, they are not and will not be friends.

Their relationship, with their unofficial walks in the woods, continues for a year through four seasons. Each walk’s end designed to provide a guessing game for the assembled media, a little game the pair develop.

Finally, there is an agreement, a good one but predictably rejected by Moscow as too American, but Andrey makes a few changes to an unofficial copy that he says might make it acceptable . . . by implication, less “American”, and a copy which he can present to his superiors.

The agreement though, represents more than just words on a piece of paper, it shows the growing bond, the friendship that has developed between the two negotiators.

There is a twist to come as positions are reversed. Andrey, his mind; or perhaps his spirit, no longer up to the job, is returning home, leaving the we are not here to be friends Joan pleading with him to stay.

We end back on the START treadmill, more warheads, more missiles, more . . . more, endless negotiation to keep up with the burgeoning numbers and advancing technology.

winter walks

A sort of agreement in the winter woods of Geneva

Joan is now the experienced old hand and the new Russian, whoever he, or she, is, will be learning the ropes. Will it be another Andrey? Will they become friends? Who knows?

The set, designed by director Tom Cooper is magical, a clearing in a forest, a stage full of tree trunks up to the skies, with fallen branches and undergrowth, all well lit by David Ashton. All the more remarkable is that the design and building by the set team was achieved in such a short time.

Problems meant Cooper took over late in the day and the play was only cast three weeks ago which perhaps excuses the almost inaudible prompts, two huge parts to learn in so little time and the pair did remarkably well.

Payne had a consistent authentic sounding Russian accent and Johnson had that slight hint of an American accent we hear from the educated east coasters, again, consistent, which is the key to sounding convincing. Muscovites and Washingtonians might disagree but for untrained Sutton ears they worked just fine.

With first night over, almost a dress in the circumstances, this should settle down, the basis of the rating incidentally, into an interesting look at what could happen behind the scenes of the black and white world of geopolitics. Can negotiators actually have a civil relationship, even a friendship?

In the original it was John rather than Joan, and the pair did well to accommodate the change in dynamics the gender switch creates, the most obvious being Andrey managing to avoid appearing attracted to Joan.

After all this is a play not about a man and a woman but the negotiators, people in the strange situation of being both colleagues, in that they are in the same profession doing the same job, but are also rivals and adversaries. Can public enemies be private friends? As a one time political correspondent back in the day, you would be surprised.

The wood will be open to visitors to 29-10-22.

Roger Clarke


Sutton Arts Theatre

Home Reviews A-Z Reviews by affiliate