Review: St John's May Ball: One to remember

Image credit: Anastasia Bow-Betrand

My lovely date for the night, fellow TCS-er and Engling Eleanor Metcalf, and I, were suitably impressed by the literary associations of this year’s theme of ‘Lost Worlds’, which was a closely guarded secret until programmes started filtering out. With Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ and Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Kahn’ winning space alongside the thirty page long details of the various worlds we would encounter from the underwater delights of Atlantis, the ‘mythical pleasure dome of Xanadu’, the ruins of Ancient Egypt and more, this is certainly the best read I’ve had in a while.

A beautiful blur. Credit Anastasia Bow-Bertrand

And the real deal wasn’t long in coming. Perhaps our arrival fashionably early at 7:45 meant we beat the worst of the queues, but within just over an hour, being guided through some of the prettiest of John’s gardens starting at the Queen’s Road gate, we were lost somewhere that involved wrist bands, champagne and strawberry kebabs. Things only got better.

Eleanor, relatively well-versed in the ways of May Balls attending three in a row this year, had cannily abstained from anything but sweets all day so was suitably famished as we took in the lines of white and orange globe lanterns bobbing across the Backs. Never one to turn down a free (well, not exactly, at £160 a pop) meal, we whizzed through the third and second to the first court, where a queue-less hog roast greeted our nostrils and eyes, as only pulled pork on a spike can. Normally, I am not a big meat eater, but reviewers must sample a spectrum of delights, and I can confirm that the pork was perfectly succulent, the bap just floury enough and the apple sauce the right side of chunky.

It is pretty hard to get me off the subject of food, so I will run through the other delights of the night. Although seemingly weighted towards savoury tastes, we sampled the creamy but tart lemon flan, the overly firm but unctuous chocolate mousse and eyed up the lavender set custard at the heavenly named ‘trio of desserts’ stand. Then there was cheese. For Eleanor, cheese is a game-changer, and I hear that the selection was an all round success (I’m sorry we didn’t get a menu, but there was something that looked remarkably like comté, a hard cheddar type cheese and stilton).

While Eleanor tasted, I enjoyed the stellar line up of opera filling the far reaches of the hall, and posed for inappropriate photos with a very buff statute of an ancient Greek god. In the nude. Him, not me. Other offerings ranging from comforting Annie-Mae’s Mac n’ Cheese served out of a glorious bunting laden van, Camel Meatballs and Crocodile steaks, Sushi (the queue for the latter two were the longest of the night but reports were great), Fajitas, Fancy hot dogs (the venison and red wine was one of the nicest sausages I have had to date), grilled vegetable and halloumi skewers, to trays of Turkish delight and churros rolled in cinnamon spiked molten chocolate are just a selection of the foods we encountered during the night.

Much as the food was of a fantastic quality and nowhere seemed to dwindle, the breadth and quantity of drinks was nothing short of exceptional. However, the champagne on arrival was not readily available again until later on in the wee hours, but this was compensated for by island bars serving Jägerbombs (quirkily called jaguarbombs, get it?), Tequila and Sambuca bars, milk shakes, cider, beer on tap, ice-heavy punts nestling Peroni, San Pellegrino soft drinks and water, tea and coffee (the antidote to the biting drizzle that marked 2 am) and a mixer tent amongst others.

The highlight for us both were the offerings from Cocktail Box. The gorgeous bartender, Gabor (another bonus of the night was that all the staff were super friendly and well-informed) mixed us up a Passion Fruit Martini (a warm kick of slightly sweet syrup and vodka) and a fancy lemonade involving lots of gin, crushed mint leaves, and a heady rush of not having to physically hand over anything in exchange.

On both the food and drink fronts, the sheer quantity and choice is what made John’s so outstanding, and this extraordinary attention to detail transcended even the large scale entertainment, most notably the fireworks. New Year’s on London Bridge honestly had nothing on these. Ensconced in the warmth of furry muffs, jackets slung around shoulders, we sat at a table heaving with a summer flower bouquet at one of the many seated areas to watch the show.

With fantastically paired musical accompaniment featuring everything from pop to classical power houses, the display was quite simple other worldly. As Eleanor pointed out, she’s not necessarily that interested by fireworks, but this was certainly a highlight of our night, with a lengthy display that was fresh and original. This beauty and choreography was later reproduced in the light projection show on the wall of New Court, lighting up the arena in John’s colours and kaleidoscope motifs.

Elsewhere, dodgems and silent disco proved popular all night, as did the comedy stage offering home-grown talent including Footlights, while New Court hosted Nina Conti. Having seen her before, and being rather freaked by her monkey puppet, I passed up this show, but the healthy crowd and audience interaction suggested many people enjoy ventriloquism’s quirks.

On a mission: Headliner Katy B                           Credit Eleanor Metcalf

As well as offerings of massage, a Lord of the Rings marathon (a triumph in itself), a fantastic jazz sextet to which we danced because it just wanted to be swung to, DJ tents presided over by Oneman and Floating Points, soulful folk singers in secluded marquees, and a simple (even for the most inebriated) symmetrical maze which offered PDA overload in its dark hedgey (not sure this is a word) corners, the main stage was warmed up by MNEK. With a dance inducing set, to my surprise, he proved a tough act to follow, with Katy B well attended but not rammed, apart from the moshing induced by a pack of obnoxious male attendees who were more interested in crowd-surfing than enjoying Katy’s set. The only point in the evening where the unwanted side of behaviour appeared, elsewhere conversation was suitably celebratory of the atmosphere and occasion, with polite elbowing the defence of choice in the headliner crowd. Despite this distraction, Katy B certainly got our arms in the air and the whole crowd swaying, but for me, the set never really peaked. Admittedly, half an hour passed all too quickly, but her top big hitters fell flat.

Re-living the night through this review, I cannot fairly say there was anything wanting. Even my love of paella and Pimm’s (both of which weren’t featured) were well and truly forgotten in the overwhelming spread and showcase that was John’s. Despite our two band company for most of the night, John’s lived up to my hopes for both value for money and memory bank. Amidst the selfies, chats and unrelenting amazement, this May Ball is one I will remember on the days that seem routine, and will surface both a smile, and a tummy rumble. Try and get to John’s one time if you can.

Food 9/10
Drinks 9/10
Entertainment 8/10
Value for money 9/10

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