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.

Alasdair Pal big boi chipmunk Footlights May Ball St John's College st johns Totally Tom


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