TV: Secret amorous affairs, infidelities, friendship and self-discovery in new BBC drama Conversations with Buddies

Rachael Davis chats with stars Alison Oliver and Joe Alwyn ahead of the anticipated new series based on Sally Rooney’s debut novel

In Spring 2020, during those ominous first weeks of lockdown without human contact, the hearts of viewers across the country were captured by the hot and emotional BBC television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s award-winning novel Normal People.

The romantic drama series has certainly left a legacy, launching the careers of stars Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal and delivering the best week ever for BBC Three, receiving 16.2 million requests in its first week.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that the creators of Normal People scoured Sally Rooney’s back catalog for more.

2022 Conversations With Friends, an adaptation of Rooney’s 2017 debut novel of the same name, follows Dublin student Frances and her best friend/ex-girlfriend Bobbi as they become entangled in a complicated web of romantic affairs with a married couple.

21-year-old Frances, played by industry newcomer Alison Oliver, and Bobbi, played by Loki’s Sasha Lane, split three years ago but are still virtually inseparable.

They catch the eye of Melissa, played by Sex Education’s Jemima Kirke, a successful author in her 30s, at one of her spoken word poetry performances in Dublin. The students begin to spend a lot of time with Melissa and her husband Nick, The Favorite and Mary Queen Of Scots’ Joe Alwyn.

Melissa and Bobbi openly flirt with each other, but Nick and Frances’ romantic and sexual affair, despite its intensity, is kept secret. It’s not long before secrecy tests the bond between Frances and Bobbi, forcing Frances to face a personal and moral identity crisis.

The main message of the story, says Oliver, is the freedom and fragility of love.

“I think what I took away from the story, and what I hope people will take away, is this: you can’t control who you love or how many people you love, you can’t control how it turns out or how you’re going to feel about it “, she says.

“You can only love people and hope for the best.”

Oliver commends the rich source material – Sally Rooney’s novel, which explores Frances’ “entire inner workings during this period” – for how naturally she felt able to step into the lead role.

“She’s such an intriguing character, she’s so complicated, she has so many different elements,” says Oliver.

“If you read the book, she’s written so clearly and honestly that I had such a strong image of her in my head when I came in to audition and then came to play her.

“The way this is done is in a very intimate and sensitive way, and there’s so much room for quieter moments and quieter performances that you really have the space to breathe with the character.”

Similarly, Alwyn, also a big fan of Rooney’s work, says he felt a kinship with his character, 32-year-old actor Nick.

“There are many differences, but there are similarities,” he says.

“Some of the things he struggles with, or moments of doubt, periods of low spirits that I can kind of relate to, but also periods of happiness. He has an essence that I am similar to, as much as there may be quite different.

“That’s a very Nick way of replying – quite evasive, cryptic and reserved.”

Compared to Normal People’s love story, Conversations With Friends is much more abstract. It is a complex coming-of-age drama that is more about character development and interpersonal relationships than conventional plot. As Kirke, who plays Melissa in the TV adaptation, puts it, “Apart from an affair, nothing really happens.”

Instead, the nuanced story is guided by quiet moments: fleeting glances, the way objects are passed between characters, the electricity of an illicit finger touch, a whispered inhalation.

Rooney is often praised for this minimalist method of storytelling in her prose, but translating this to screen is a tricky task for writers, directors and actors.

“The team that made Normal People really broke new ground in the world of television by creating something more understated than you would expect from a TV show that allows you to sit with the characters in moments says Leanne Welham, who co-led the program with Lenny Abrahamson.

“There’s a desire for audiences to have the opportunity not just to be overwhelmed with the plot of a story, but to actually have those quieter moments and construct episodes around moments of nuance.

“Moments that you wouldn’t think of as dramatic, but are actually within the context of the story and the show, actually feel incredibly tense. As a director, it’s really amazing to do that.”

That nuance and subtlety also appealed to Oliver about the role. She says she has read Rooney’s work before and found it “so intimate and sensitive and detailed but also fearless and powerful” and was enchanted by the four main characters and their relationships with one another.

“I was fascinated by the dynamic between these four characters and how dependent they all are on each other to develop and move forward in their lives,” she says.

“They are all at a very stagnant point in their lives and by meeting them they can grow – I found that very interesting. I was so convinced and moved by this intense female relationship between Bobbi and Frances.

“It’s so beautiful and one that I resonated with and understood.”

Judging by Conversations With Friends’ predecessor, its stars are in for an imminent catapult to stardom. Perhaps no one will notice this as much as Alison Oliver: This is her first TV role, having recently graduated from Dublin’s Lir Academy, the same drama school Normal People’s Paul Mescal attended.

“It feels like a big responsibility to take on these characters and this story, but I think once we start rehearsing and shooting, you’re just so immersed in the world of your character that you can’t think far ahead can,” she says.

“I was just a big fan of Sally’s book first and foremost,” adds Alwyn, speaking of his surprising lack of nerve before the program’s release. “Being invited into their world and into Lenny’s world – I’ve been such a fan of Lenny as a filmmaker before – that was the biggest thing that got me.

“Of course it’s a bit nervous to follow something that’s incredibly loved, and rightly so, but I think it just feels like a privilege, a blessing, to be a part of it more than anything.”

Talks With Friends, BBC Three, tomorrow 10pm

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