Review: The Union’s Bicentenary Ball

VICA GERMANOVA is suitably impressed with Cambridge’s most expensive birthday party

ball Bicentenary Cambridge Union

The Union may have an excellent reputation for debates, speakers, cocktails and general poshness, but throwing good parties has not – historically – been one of its fortés.

I can say this with a degree of confidence because it’s pretty much common knowledge. My year’s freshers’ ball, wherein all the food (just hog roast baps) and champagne (ahem, Prosecco) ran out within approximately 40 minutes, is not easily forgotten, and this year’s intake didn’t seem too impressed with theirs, either.

On Friday evening, however, I am happy to say that the Union achieved something special. For one night, the self-righteous pomposity and smugness that often taints my experiences at the venue seemed to have been cast aside. It was, fundamentally, a superb ball.

Queuing in the cold was a bit of a bitch, granted, but once it actually got moving tickets were checked and wristbands distributed highly efficiently. My stomach turned a little when the first thing we walked into upon entrance was that same huge ugly marquee, offering thimble-sized flutes of Prosecco (for fuck’s sake, guys, you can’t call it a ‘champagne reception’ if it ain’t champagne) and those bloody hog baps again, bringing back painful memories of Freshers’ Flop 2013.

The kebabs were pretty plain, too, but the wood oven pizzas handmade in front of you did add a touch of decadence. I’m pretty sure the guy who served me mine even had an authentic Italian accent. About halfway through they swapped this out for paella, happily placed next to a bar serving beer (well, just Cobra) and an array of ciders.

If I were a fan of sweet things, I’d certainly praise the wide range of extremely beautifully presented cakes and meringues arranged across tables around the venue. These must have been delicious as the tables were rather bare by the time we’d even discovered them.

My poison of choice, however, is alcohol – and there was plenty of it. The wide variety of themed cocktails was fantastic (admittedly, the names probably could have been somewhat more inspired than ‘Black Tie’ and ‘1815 Bar’) and guests were provided with a continuous supply of Jägerbombs and vodka-cokes well into the early hours.

The main-room performers were nothing particularly special, but for a £55 ticket you can’t really expect anything more than smalltime, local talent. A personal highlight was when the smoke machine set off the fire alarm around midnight, and 650 quite drunk and uncooperative people had to be shepherded out by equally merry staff.

Bit of a bummer, since the majority of guests had left coats inside, but the whole ordeal was over within about 15 minutes so we barely had time to start voicing complaints. Additionally, the fire engine provided a source of great entertainment to legions of smashed girls asking to try on the firemen’s helmets/honk their horn. (These requests were rather bemusedly granted.)


The size of the venue had the potential to be problematic, but it somehow didn’t feel super packed out, even though there were only 2 dance floors. Upstairs offered one of the nicest chill-zones I’ve seen at a Cambridge ball, with lovely live acoustic and jazz music, shisha and massages, all in the romantically-lit, decadent interior of the Library.

A handful of Footlights provided some (very) light comedy for a short while at the start of the night with a mixed reaction: perhaps people needed to drink a bit more first.

Churchill Casino provided an alternative source of entertainment throughout the night. They were perfectly happy to explain the rules of poker or blackjack to you if you’d managed to forget by the end of the night – but not so happy if you put a cup on their tables. Without any meaningful incentive I quickly gambled away my tokens and stumbled on.

Additional entertainment was provided by makeshift flute-playing on the electric shisha pipes

Apart from the generic food and mediocre main-room entertainment, it was basically really, really good value for money. You couldn’t help but come away feeling sort of impressed, but that’s probably just because of the Union’s weak reputation for balls.

Does it compete with Spring Ball or Snow Ball, the outside-of-May-Week goliaths? No, but the beauty of it was that it did not claim to.

For once in its illustrious history, the Union settled for just throwing a really, really good party  – and, in my opinion, absolutely succeeded.

4.5 stars