Friends Reunited; as the Wales MillenniumCentre Gets Ready to Stage Its Biggest Musical to Date, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Leading Men Aled Jones and Ian H Watkins Catch Up over Lunch with Karen Price and Share a Few Behind-the-Scenes Stories
IT'S Friday lunchtime and inside a busy restaurant in London's Covent Garden two young men are greeting each other with a big hug followed by some back slapping.
Arather exhausted looking Aled Jones has just arrived at Browns after spending the morning in a dance rehearsal and he appears - to put it politely - a bit ruffled around the edges.
But he is clearly pleased to be catching up with his new co-star - and old friend - Ian H Watkins and it seems the feeling is mutual.
"How are you?" shouts Watkins, leaping from the brown leather seat and throwing his arms out as soon as he claps eyes on Jones.
"Shattered," says the singer and presenter before plonking himself down at our table and ordering a large orange juice and lemonade in an attempt to rehydrate himself.
At the time, it's less than two weeks until the Welshmen return home to the stage of the Wales Millennium Centre for the venue's biggest production to date, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
But they have managed to find time to join me for lunch and to talk about their project.
While Watkins is spared the daily rigmarole of rehearsals due to the fact he's already appeared on stage as the evil Child Catcher, Jones, who takes on the leading role as inventor Caractacus Potts, has his nose to the grindstone - and it sounds far different to those jolly classes the leg-warmer-clad students in Fame used to enjoy.
"It's full on - it makes Strictly Come Dancing look easy," admits Jones, who was once a contestant on the gruelling BBC reality show.
"Today we've been running through all the dance numbers and it's been a shock to the system.
We're rehearsing in the same place as High School Musical so everyone there is 17 and running around in leg-warmers and then there's me..."
Watkins tries to reassure him, saying: "It will be worth it you know."
But it seems that Jones is feeling the strain - and the pain.
"I honestly couldn't walk up the stairs. My daughter said, 'Are you all right dad?' And it took me ages trying to get out of bed."
We have only just ordered our meals - we all opt for the salmon and spring onion fishcakes with a mango salsa dressing - and have settled down for a chat when suddenly a party of women approaches.
Although our table is tucked away at the back of the restaurant, we - or Jones, more to the point - have been spotted.
Sheila Sheridan is celebrating her 70th birthday and is keen to have her photograph taken with her idol. The ever-polite Jones agrees.
"I've never ever met a star," she says.
"You still haven't," he deadpans. "I've gone bright red.
"I feel like I'm blushing."
After the happy group leaves the table, I'm keen to know if this kind of thing happens often.
"No, not really," he says, still clearly bemused by the fact he's been mobbed.
The fishcakes arrive and as we tuck in, the pair are keen to chat about Chitty, the story of an inventor who buys and renovates an old car which has the power to fly.
While they have known each other for a while and appeared in a few TV shows together, the men, who live a few streets from each other in Barnes, London, have never worked alongside each other in musicals.
"Have you danced before on stage?"
Watkins asks Jones.
"No, but I'm not stressing - I'm stressing about other things, like learning my lines. We ran through the first half of the show yesterday.
I've just been pushing and pushing it really. I've not done a big show like this for 13 years," says the father of two, whose last big stage project was the title role in Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dream coat.
Watkins pipes up, laughing: "The show's literally on your shoulders then."
"Thanks," says Jones. "This makes me think what an easy gig Joseph was. …