St John’s May Ball

ALASDAIR PAL on our highest-ranking ball ever. The first verdict from a reviewer who didn't leave halfway through.


21st June 2011, £150

When I arrived in Cambridge as an impressionable first-year, I came up a week early for some pre-term classes. All of the John’s students, however, were there already; the college had put on their own freshers’ week. I asked someone why. ‘It’s just John’s’, he said, ‘they like to do things differently there.’

Which is an apt way of describing the 500th anniversary, theme very much unclear. No matter: from the gold-embossed programme to the ruthlessly sharp queuing system, John’s was superlative in almost every way.

Drink favourites were present and in abundance. The champagne tent, curiously stuffed behind the pizza ovens in Second Court, was well stocked until daybreak: first with Bellini and Kir Royal, and later, Buck’s Fizz for breakfast. Iced punts filled with beers and cordials kept crowds to a minimum, while two cocktail bars and gin twists from newly-launched distillery Sipsmith gave the ball a refined edge.

The food, however, was ever so slightly more variable. Roast beef from the college kitchens was one of the tastiest things I’ve sampled in May Week, and the hog roast in First Court was gleefully sunk with mead and cider. The greasy fish and chips, however, weren’t quite up to scratch.

Just the sheer scale of the ents is enough to impress: well over 100 acts across eight stages, which unlike most balls, continued up to – and even past – the survivors’ photo. The headliner will always attract the most attention, and questions were asked of the choice of Big Boi – huge in the States, but with a limited UK profile. I’m a huge fan, but it looked like I was in a minority: even OutKast hits ‘Bombs Over Baghdad’ and ‘The Way You Move’ were met with relative silence. Still, it was refreshing to see an international artist put some effort in, rather than just turning up for the cheque. The crowd could really sense it – and he thought he was at ‘St. John’s University’, bless him.

Elsewhere, the usual slew of Footlights past and present complemented Totally Tom in the comedy tent. Erol Alkan and TC tore up the dance tent. Objectivity, however, is impossible: there was simply too much to see. Clean Bandit had a stormer on the Main Stage, and drag show Denim in the Great Hall was a popular choice. Not forgetting the fireworks, of course.


Video courtesy of Izzy Webb

So it really is difficult to fault. But let’s try: there was a distinct lack of punting, and, er, the toilets weren’t very well signposted.

Pedantry, basically. In the garbled post-5am words of a friend of mine: ‘this is about twice as better as Clare, than Clare is than Homerton.’ And as much as I hate to say it, coming from south of the railway bridge, he’s pretty much spot on.

Food and drink:

Value for money:

Wow factor:

Star Attraction: Astonishingly varied ents

Biggest turn-off: Slightly soggy food as the evening progressed

  • Red Boy

    Johnsbridge absolutely bossed May Week

  • guest

    they ran out of everything apart from sparkly by 4 am and most people (lucky who the few) did not know where this was served! not too impressed.

    • drunk guest

      obviously not looking in the right places. gin and vodka cocktails, beers, champagne cocktails still going at 4. I got so whammed

    • Sorry?

      Which ball were you at? Maybe it was the triple vodka shot I'd just had, but at 4.30am there were definitely still puntfuls of beer lying around and plenty of cobra on tap.

    • Worth it?

      Honestly didn't even know about the Champagne tent behind the pizza ovens – didn't get a glass all evening…also only Cobra near the main stage, I had to walk the circular route back to second court to get anything else if I wanted to drink and watch the main stage. And choosing two main acts who are pretty similar to the untrained ear – not great given that I was most exited prior to the ball about the ents. I had a good night – it was a spectacular setting – but would I pay to go? No, probably not.

  • George Johnston

    I fucked it up.

  • Trinity

    Still would rather be at Oxford than St Johns….

  • Lukas (Wong)

    So gutted I was not there. WOULD HAVE CLEANED UP

  • Johnian

    I think Big Boi is on to something. Lets make "St. John's University" a permanent thing, cambridge wide.

  • Uhh…

    Not sure why this is described in the tagline as "our highest-ranking Ball ever"… John's missed out on one star in total, as did Trinity. Therefore they were ranked equally…

    • umm…

      but trinity's shit.

  • Johnian101

    You missed out Ellafunks! Big Boi was good but I thought that there could be more rock!

  • Ain't No Pal of Mine

    Wow, did St. John suck this guys dick or what? Good? Yes. As good as AlPal seems to think? Not even close.

  • PC-GG

    This is just more evidence that you other colleges can't ball on a budget.

    • Kingsman

      Did you even bother looking at the Kings Affair review?

  • This looks terrible

    Why does this review not mention that the author and his girlfriend were given a pair of free tickets for helping the committee with 'media work'?

    And why does it fail to reflect the widespread concern that John's didn't live up to the hype and wasn't as nice as Magdalene or fun as King's?

    Please answer Pal/Editor?

    • trufax

      neither Magdalene nor King's had happened when this review was written; also these aren't comparative pieces.

  • Ball-goer

    Amazing ball but literally the same as any other John's ball from previous years bar the dressage show. Big boi was a disappointing and relatively unpopular choice and sadly I would say that out of the 4 Johns and 3 trinity balls i have been to, this year's Trinity ball topped John's and was the best of them all.

    The Tab should apologise for over-hyping the ball which whilst mind-blowing was no different to any other year………

  • Moose6

    Magdalene blew John's out of the water.

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