REVIEW: St John’s May Ball 2017

Very impressive, but short of outstanding.

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Tab May Ball rating: ★★★★☆

Most guests’ expectations of the 129th incarnation of St John’s May Ball were higher than those they had for any other May Week event.

Distinctive tradition, elusive tickets and past guests’ stories mean the event has established itself in Cambridge students’ minds as the stuff of May Week fantasy.

Fancy fountain

Flicking through the ball programme, you immediately realise what makes the event so special: its sheer scale. In crude numerical terms, there is simply so much more to see and do than at other May Balls. But John’s isn’t just an enlarged version of its rivals – what stuck out most on Tuesday night was the considerable variety of things on offer, more than the quantity, and it was evident that the committee had thought carefully about how best to achieve this.

It was most evident with ents. Non-music ents were satisfactory (nothing to complain about, but also nothing to brag to friends about), but the diversity of music ents was impressive. Whether the big acts on the main stage, the unrelenting hours of trap in the rave tent, or the more chilled vibes in Chapel Court, music catered for all tastes.

Substitute headliner Blonde were decent, but never extricated themselves definitively from the shadow of Sigala after their last minute cancellation. Far more impressive were the smaller names elsewhere: the talent of some of the student acts completely exceeded expectations, and the classical music in the Hall provided stylish accompaniment to the cheese and mead on offer.

Even fancier fountain

The drinks on offer were also well thought out; rather than providing bar after bar of nondescript cocktails, there was genuine diversity in the range of bevs available. At the more refined end of the scale, the G&T bar and the real ales on tap were particular highlights; at the other end, VKs (though without straws) and jaegerbombs flowed all night. Other drinks were just outrageous: the dry ice candyfloss martinis were mesmerising, and the red wine fountain in Chapel Court could only be described as utter decadence.

Attention to detail was generally commendable, but not pervasive: Absolut’s vodka luge had a plastic straw on the end which meant the vodka came out warm, and their shots bar ran out of shot glasses halfway through the night. That said, guests still seemed overwhelmingly satisfied with the variety of drinks provided.

But still no straws

With food, however, it felt like the pursuit of variety also resulted in variety of quality. In New Court alone, for example, although the mini cupcakes and meringues were divine, the fish finger burgers tasted like what a 12-year-old would throw together from fridge leftovers. The steak frites were sumptuous (someone requested a medium-rare and they cooked one specially for him), but the bacon butties which replaced them at sunrise were basically mediocre McMuffins.

By far the biggest problem, however, was queues. Hour-long queuing for mac and cheese is unacceptable. It wasn’t just a problem with food – the queue for flower crowns at times exceeded an hour, and the queue for dodgems was at one point hazardous enough for the ride to be temporarily closed off. Although queues tailed off towards the end of the night as the stages became more popular and non-survivors went home, they remain a chronic problem for John’s which next year’s committee must think about very seriously.

Tastes as good as it looks

All in all, however, it was a great night, and I’d go again. The ball met all of my expectations. But it did not exceed them. There was no transcendent magical moment or theme to top off this May Week fantasy; it was a nine-hour spree of undeniably excellent ents, food and drink, but not that fairytale I’d hoped for. The biggest missed opportunity was the harnessing of the ball’s theme, “Tempus Fugit”: it was not consistently reflected throughout. The design features were nice touches, but weren’t mind-blowing enough to drastically alter my experience of the ball as much as they had the potential to; they were haphazardly scattered and didn’t always obviously correspond with the ball’s theme. The only exception was the fireworks display – which in my book topped Trinity’s display from the night before with its addition of a laser show – but this was an exceptional rather than reflectional moment of the ball.

Overall, then, an absolutely solid night out at an impressive ball – but not an outstanding one.