The sun rises over the Backs as the party comes to an endAnna Hollingsworth

Wandering around College on the morning of the ball, I stumbled upon scantily-clad female silhouettes on a red background: more brothel than ball, I couldn’t help wonder if John’s was taking its reputation as the seventh best party in the world a bit too seriously, copying the #MeToo issues undoubtedly present at no. six on the list, the Oscars after-party. Fortunately, I have to disappoint any sensationalism seekers: the only scoop I have to offer is that St John’s May Ball was, once again, a blast.

Said silhouettes turned out to go with Moulin Rouge, one of the sub-headings of this year’s theme, ‘Extravaganza’. From the Venetian Biennale to Cirque du Soleil; Belgian music festival Tomorrowland to Japanese Sakura, I felt like I’d stumbled into an extended version of the Gatsby house, walking from one party straight to another. It was a night of hopping from rave to Rio and cabaret to Cannes: I was always discovering more, and there was always somewhere else I could be.

It was a night of hopping from rave to Rio and cabaret to Cannes

It was a shame, then, that a lot of the time ‘somewhere else’ was actually a queue for food. John’s has always had some slow movers, but this time round it felt as if most food was asking for a significant degree of commitment: how does it take over 20 minutes to serve the same number of people sweet potato fries? (For future reference: the clue is in the name – fast food.) Once you got to it, though, the stuff was mostly excellent (I am told – it wasn’t the vegan wonderland I hear Trinity was): my carnivore sibling was blown away by the camel burger, the crêpes were a crowd-pleaser, the G&T tent showcased new, exciting flavours, and yes, those sweet potato fries were particularly fluffy. 

I know I’m always complaining about how vegans are fed only fruit (apologies to anyone who’s been to formal with me), but the star of my culinary carnival was the fruit flambé. The brandy-soaked warm fruit got a weird look from many, and it was possibly the only queue-free option; even the people dishing out didn’t seem quite sure of their product. As I went up to them – on repeat –, their look of genuine surprise did not wane: ‘Do you want some? I mean it’s fruit…’ So, listen up flambé family: in the words of George Michael, you gotta have faith, faith, faith.

Where the quality faltered, unexpectedly, was the option that has had its praise shouted from rooftops: Aromi pizza. For some bizarre reason, the pizza had to be sliced and placed onto three different trays before being served – watching this was an extravaganza in itself –, and as the result, it was a gross semi-thawed temperature once you’d fought off queue-jumpers and got your hands on a slice. I haven’t had a microwaveable pizza for a good 15 years, but this brought back a lot of suppressed gastronomic low points.

Luckily the ents did a good job taking my mind off those less happy childhood foodie flashbacks. The fireworks, paradoxically, started with ‘Look Down’ from Les Mis. But honestly, the only way to look was up – even with Javert telling you the opposite – because it was a loud, bright, and simply mind-blowingly extravagant spectacle.

After cancelling on the day last year, this year the headliner Sigala decided to stay true to his lyrics and came here for love. Alas, there was too much remix and too little original work to get my sweet lovin’, so I, for one, gave my love to the all-star student performers. Now may ball classics, Colonel Spanky’s Love Ensemble (who, I’ve over the years discovered, are not in fact an X-rated act) had guests partying away to their jazzy tunes – as did the strong line-up in the jazz tent otherwise as well. The acoustic marquee was another big brownie point scorer for me: call me a party pooper, but my idea of fun for a lot of the night was lying on the cushions and listening to Jack Sarsedon’s foot-stomping folky offerings and Mermaid Café’s honeyed vocals and mellow guitar melodies. 


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My attempt to experience virtual reality was met with a disappointingly long, and real, queue – and watching people with VR goggles on was somehow not quite as extravagant as the hot air balloon two years ago –, so I opted for an even more reality-bending experience. The illusionist Alexis Arts’ magic shows, running throughout the night, had me both in giggles and doubting everything around me, even if the room was heated with (yes, also the lack of any ventilation) the audience’s fear of being picked to do some of the slightly dodgier tasks on stage.

The now one enduring image of May Week for me is now the sun rising against the backdrop of the Backs (admittedly quite dotted with drunken, over-privileged and not very diverse party-goers), set to the soundtrack of the Gents of St John’s doing a fantastic falsetto imitation of Britney. Oops, John’s really did it again: it played with my heart, and I think I’m in love.

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