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Directed by Lenny Abrahamson and screenwriter Alice Birch, the same team behind the phenomenally successful adaptation of Sally Rooney’s second novel Normal People, Conversations with Friends arrives this weekend. The highly anticipated series stars newcomer Alison Oliver, Sasha Lane (American Honey, The Miseducation Of Cameron Post), Joe Alwyn (The Favourite) and Jemima Kirke (Sex Education, Girls) and is one of the first original dramas to land on BBC Three since the station returned in March.
Although there are four characters in this tangled tale, the story mainly focuses on Frances (Oliver) and Bobbi (Lane). Frances is observant, cerebral and sharp. Her ex-girlfriend, and now best friend, Bobbi is self-assured, outspoken and compelling. Although they broke up three years ago, the pair are inseparable and regularly perform feminist spoken word poetry together in Dublin. During the summer before their final year at Trinity College, they meet Melissa (Kirke), an older, successful writer who is fascinated by the pair. Soon, Bobbi begins flirting with Melissa and Frances finds herself drawn to Melissa’s handsome actor husband, Nick (Alwyn).
During the long months of freedom over the summer, the girls start to spend time with the married couple, first at the beach, then in their stunning, mid-century clad home. While Melissa and Bobbi’s attraction is overt and playful, Nick and Frances embark on an intense, secret affair that takes them both by surprise. Soon the relationship begins to test the bonds of friendship between Frances and Bobbi – and the bonds of trust between the four – forcing Frances to reconsider her sense of self, confront her own vulnerabilities and evaluate her vital relationship with Bobbi.
When Normal People was first shown in 2020 – in the midst of the first UK lockdown – our review called it “a beautiful coming-of-age drama” and a “flawless adaptation”. The same can’t quite be said here. The issue with the book – which is starkly obvious on screen, where we’re not party to Frances’s internal thoughts and chains of emails – is that fact that there aren’t really any relationships to root for. While Normal People’s Connell and Marianne’s relationship was dysfunctional and both were at fault at different stages of the novel, their magnetic partnership was so pure that audiences supported them until the very end. In Conversations With Friends, not even Bobbi and Frances’s central friendship seems balanced or covetable, which makes this a slightly challenging watch at times.
That said, once Frances and Nick’s initial sheen with one another begins to wane, and the foursome return from an ill-advised, week-long holiday in Croatia, the series attempts to get a little more under Frances’s skin. Rather than seeing her as a misguided 21-year-old, we witness hospital visits and see more of her factitious relationships with her divorced parents, something we glimpse briefly in the second episode. As we learn about her past, her present decisions become easier to relate to. And it's full credit to newcomer Oliver that Frances is portrayed as vulnerable, seductive, guarded, aloof, shy, deeply intelligent and naïve all at once.
Despite this being Rooney’s debut, you can see why the production team decided to adapt Normal People first. And while it’s impossible not to compare the two, Conversations with Friends is worth watching in its own right, especially once it hits the mid-way mark and the story becomes about much more than the affair. Combining a compelling story with great performances all round, this production is an extremely bingeable series that should appeal to both fans of the book and newcomers. Now to wait for the inevitable adaptation of Beautiful World, Where Are You…
Conversations with Friends is available to watch on iPlayer on Sunday and each Sunday at 10pm on BBC3.