Coming up with a good theme for a May Ball is often a thankless task, with only the finest of margins separating originality from pretentiousness. Fortunately, however, the Selwyn committee were right on the money with their seaside theme, transporting the college back fifty-odd years to a time when Margate trumped Marbella in the battle for middle-class money.
Colourful without being garish, the decor provided a convincing backdrop, with striped beach huts and deckchairs offering photo opportunities that handily releived the pressure on the inflatable photo-booth. At some May Balls, the irruption of dodgems and other fairground attractions into the overall design can jar somewhat with the underlying theme, but here the incorporation of a carousel, whack-a-rat and swing boats could scarcely have been more appropriate. They were genuinely fun, too: on one occasion at least, the gentleman running the latter had to ask the riders to be less vigorous lest they fall off. Indeed, such quirkiness extended onto Old Court itself; the less-inebriated guests having the chance to win a soft toy by knocking down a series of tin cans.
Of course, a successful May Ball must be practical as well as aesthetically pleasing, and in general there were few problems. Though the wide range of entertainment options and sensible use of three courts managed for the most part to alleviate the bête noire that is May Ball queueing, my impatience still led me to forgo both the chippy and the falafel stall. That said, the entrance queue was not too bad, relatively speaking, and the choice of a magician for the queue entertainment was a welcome innovation. Old Court's rooms led to some crowding in the Casino area but mercifully the committee decided to jettison the controversial one-way system perennially implemented at the Snowball.
Whilst veterans of the May Ball scene would perhaps have been less than inspired by the presence of such Cambridge staples as Aromi and Nanna Mexico, there were nevertheless some welcome additions in the culinary department. Candy floss, popcorn and an amusingly named hotdog stand, Sausage Fest, all contributed to a strong sense of place, whilst the truffles and cheeseboard catered for more refined tastes. And, quite some cheeseboard at that: married with Merlot, guests were treated to no fewer than eight options, my personal favourite a particularly pungent goats cheese that was apparently voted Britain's best in a 2015 competition.
Adding to the sense of glamour was the casino, where a professional spirits tester talked us through a variety of options, from whiskey and cognac to a sweeter beverage which, at least to the uninitiated, smelled rather like Nutella. Ben Comeau provided an excellent musical accompaniment with a collection of classic jazz numbers, though I could not help thinking his passionate performances merited his own room and audience.
Though the range of drinks was a little less varied than one might imagine for a £140 ticket - dry ice has perhaps by now lost its novelty - a lot of thought had clearly gone into how to distribute them in an innovative manner throughout the ball. The Jäger bar was unashamedly positioned right in the centre by the red carpet so as to keep everyone on their feet, whilst the beers and ciders (only one of each type, and not enough, it must be noted) were cleverly stashed in small paddling pools alongside non-alcoholic alternatives. The committee clearly knew their audience, and it was great to see the VKs wheeled out towards the end of the night in true Sunday night Life style.
Talking of Life, the dance tent was just one of the numerous musical options offered throughout the night. Music was certainly one of the highlights of the ball, and in particular I was impressed by the wealth of local talent on show. Walking into the Chapel, I was amazed to see a Selwyn trio putting an acoustic spin on some classic numbers whilst resident DJ Ayrton Dillon controlled the decks for the early-evening slot before the Ministry of Sound takeover. A small blip in proceedings came during the silent disco, however, when some broken glass forced us to channel our inner Cascada and evacuate the dancefloor. Music choices are always subjective, but I particularly enjoyed Cousin Kula - a six-piece outfit recently named one of NMEs 5 Acts to watch - and I could not help thinking they deserved a more popular slot in the running order.
There is no denying that the headliner, Karen Harding, is still something of a one-hit wonder with her single Say Something, but her energetic performance in a conveniently cosy tent managed to create a decent atmosphere. As is often the case, the tribute acts were more popular than the headliner, and I could hardly think of a more fitting way to end a May Ball than screaming my head off to the best part of Abba Gold at 3am.
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In all aspects of the ball, there was a strong sense that the committee had really used their imagination rather than just try and follow the conventional May Ball formula. The fireworks display, which risked turning into a damp squib given the relatively low budget, was completely transformed by coordinating the explosions with dramatic Abba numbers blasted out of nearby speakers. In addition, the sitting area was incorporated well into the overall theme and entertainment by projecting a series of famous films set at seaside locations, such as Grease. The best May Balls leave you wanting more, and only looking back later did I realise I had missed a wealth of other gems on offer, from spoken-word performer Mike Hood to a drag cabaret. But then, I would have missed Abba, and that is not a sacrifice I am willing to make.
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