Conversations With Friends, episodes 1-2: Awkward snogs, intense dialogue and a future star

TV review: Alison Oliver communicates her character’s hyper-introversion brilliantly

Conversations With Friends (BBC Three, 10pm) doesn’t come to RTÉ until Wednesday. But dedicated fans of the 2017 Sally Rooney novel will have arranged access to BBC Three, which has first broadcast rights in this part of the world.

Rooneyites going out of their way for an early peek will enjoy what they see, as the BBC airs episodes one and two (of 12) back to back.

As with the 2020 adaptation of Rooney's Normal People – likewise overseen by Lenny Abrahamson – Conversations With Friends is exceedingly Rooneyesque. Everyone is young, free, well-read and miserable (apart from Tommy Tiernan, who is just miserable). Listless, drifting dialogue is framed against the grey Dublin light (it turns out that, if there is one thing for which the grey Dublin light is perfect, it is the framing of listless, drifting dialogue).

Plus, we get the classic “Rooney snog”, where both participants are full of dread as their lips lock and at least one looks like they’d rather be alone and weeping.

No less inevitably, we get dialogue such as “what happens if I have a s*** morning? … Do I just make arbitrary decisions and we use that as a test of cultural excellence?” Funny, I was saying the very same to the postman the other day.

There’s a plot, too. This is already enough to distinguish it from Normal People. In that series, the storyline boiled down to: “boy meets girl but existence is futile, so why bother?”

Here, with country-pop indie star CMAT warbling with gusto on the soundtrack, we are introduced to arty undergrads Frances (newcomer Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (Sasha Lane). Friends since forever, they spend their time hanging around Trinity or delivering annoying spoken-word poetry in a bar that looks like the Workman’s Club but can’t be (interior scenes were shot in Belfast).

One night – at one of those poetry readings – they cross paths with a trendy and clearly very toxic married couple, Melissa (Jemima Kirk) and Nick (Joe Alwyn). She’s from London, so everyone remarks on how incredible it is that she would want to live in Dublin (Bobbi, from New York, agrees).

Her husband, Nick, is an actor – possibly Irish, though it’s hard to tell because Alwyn’s accent fell overboard on the ferry from Holyhead and is presently bobbing up and down wondering when the rescue party shows up.

Bobbi and Melissa are soon flirting like pros. A slower dance ensues between Frances and Nick. Rooney's novel asks us to spend a great deal of time inside Frances's head, and Alison Oliver impressively communicates the character's hyper-introversion: the sense of a placid exterior containing gravity wells of emotion.

She and Nick kiss in part two. Frances travels to visit her parents outside the city for a catch-up with her passive-aggressive mother (Justine Mitchell) and her sad-sack dad (Tiernan, on the couch, eating a micro-wave dinner).

There’s also a small part for Young Offenders’ Alex Murphy, as France’s deadpan colleague at her summer job (maybe it’s because they’re both from Cork but Oliver and Murphy are the only two actors sharing any genuine chemistry).

All of this unfolds in a cloud of elevated languor: in the Rooneyerse nobody can hear you scream, because why scream when you can sob quietly to yourself on the Dart?

Some other critics have taken issue with the tempo, slapping Conversations With Friends with three star write-ups. The truth is that, adjusting to the pacing and getting past Alwyn’s dead-eyed performance, Conversations with Friends isn’t nearly as average as those reviews suggest.

The backlash is, if anything, a response to the over-praise heaped on Normal People. For all its merit, Normal People was essentially the lockdown binge-watch for the dinner party set: Tiger King for the sort of person who gets invited to wine receptions at the Gutter Bookshop.

Judged on its own merits, Conversation With Friends has plenty to recommend it. Oliver looks like a star in the making, and Lenny Abrahamson’s marmite directing style – is it auteurist or just depressing? – is on point.

I’m not sure it’s quite worth the effort of tuning your satellite box to BBC3 (some Irish viewers already have it as standard). But as a slice of middle-class postmillennial melancholia, with some nice shots of Trinity and the odd awkward snog, it is absolutely watchable.

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